‘Whatever is, is right,” we are told in a moment of fatalistic horror at the close of the second act of Jephtha, Handel’s last oratorio, given its first Prom performance in more than 20 years by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus under Richard Egarr. A noble, disquieting examination of man’s response to God’s inscrutable nature, its dark tone and at times troubling emotional depth are widely taken to reflect the fact that Handel’s sight was failing while he worked on the score.
The text overlays Biblical narrative with classical tragedy. Israelite commander Jephtha vows to sacrifice the first living being he sees on returning from battle if God will grant him victory, only to find the victim is his own daughter. It is Euripides’s Iphigenia in Aulis, however, dealing with Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter before the Trojan war, that gives the girl her name, Iphis, and dictates the oratorio’s implacable dramatic structure.
Egarr’s interpretation admirably balanced intensity with reflection, urgently propelling the score forward before drawing back to allow those moments when faith is corroded by doubt to fully register. Orchestral textures were beautifully clear, the choral singing exceptional in its vividness, most notably in How Dark, O Lord, Are Thy Decrees and the awestruck Ye House of Gilead, With One Voice, which brings the work to its close. So it was a shame, perhaps, that Egarr, presumably in a quest for dramatic tautness, opted to make cuts in the score, both within numbers and of arias and choruses in their entirety.
The cast was strong, and dominated by a fine performance by Allan Clayton in the title role, effortlessly voiced and conveying Jephtha’s moral agony with subtle restraint. Jeanine De Bique made an exquisite Iphis. Tim Mead sang with extraordinary beauty as her hapless lover, Hamor, though Hilary Summers, as Jephtha’s distraught wife Storgè, seemed to be uncharacteristically detached and lacking dramatic fire. Cody Quattlebaum was virile and flamboyant as Jephtha’s half-brother Zebul, though Egarr’s decision to cut his second aria left him as something of a cipher, with too little to do.
• The Proms run until 14 September.