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Handel's 'Jephtha' is noble, stirring

Handel composed his oratorio "Jephtha" knowing that it would be the last of his works. Cataracts dimmed his vision, and soon he would be irreversibly blind. Into this music he poured more than a half-century's worth of accumulated mastery and all the soul-searching of his personal situation.

The story comes from the Bible. Jephtha, a great warrior, makes a fatal vow to the Lord: If he is victorious, he will offer the first person he sees on his return as a sacrifice. After the great battle, his beloved daughter Iphis dances out to greet him. Handel dramatizes the story with his customary vigor and spaciousness -- there are more than three hours of music -- but what engages his imagination to the fullest is the question of submission to the divine will, the dominant issue of his life as he wrote. The climax of the oratorio is in the magnificent, tragic recitative of Jephtha at the moment of truth and the following chorus, "How dark, O Lord, are Thy decrees!" which moves from mystery and doubt into affirmation. At its conclusion, Handel struck out the words of his librettist and penned in one of the most famous lines of the poet Alexander Pope, "Whatever is, is right."

"Jephtha" is the 12th major Handel work performed by conductor Craig Smith and Emmanuel Music, and Saturday night's performance was noble and stirring. Smith led with experience, insight, empathy, and emotion, responsive to the work's exterior and interior drama. The orchestra was remarkable for skill, style, and stamina. Fernando Brandao contributed some purling flute solos, and the alert continuo team included Michael Beattie (harpsichord), Michael Curry (cello), and Gregory Koeller (bass). The superb and supple chorus included many singers admired as principal artists on other Handelian occasions.

Jeffrey Gall, a mainstay of the series since 1980, was Iphis's suitor, Hamor (a role he also sang for the Boston Cecilia and the Cantata Singers). The countertenor once again offered intelligence, imagination, and incisive diction in a voice still responsive to his will. Mezzo Pamela Dellal was Jephtha's wife, who forsees the tragedy; her coloratura struck like lightning through her rage. Baritone Mark McSweeney was forthright and stalwart as Jephtha's brother, and soprano Jayne West, in fresh and fluent voice, was delightful as the life-loving Iphis, profoundly moving as the young woman who accepts her destiny. Tenor Frederick Urrey blazed as the warrior Jephtha, who moves onto another plane as the conflicted father. In the score's most famous aria Jephtha prays, "Waft her, angels, through the skies." As Urrey sang it in pianissimo, he took us above the "azure plain" to offer a consoling glimpse of heaven.

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