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Reviewer: Richard Lawrence 

This latest collaboration between György Vashegyi’s Hungarian musicians and the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles is another triumph. Despite the opposition of the archbishop of Paris, who secured a temporary suspension of the production, Jephté was a great success when it was staged at the Opéra in 1732; it was revived several times up to 1761, achieving a total of 100 performances. One admirer was Rameau, whose first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie – to a libretto by Montéclair’s librettist, the Abbé Simon-Joseph Pellegrin – appeared in 1733.

The story comes from the Book of Judges in the Old Testament where Jephthah vows, if granted victory over the Ammonites, to sacrifice whoever is the first to greet him when he returns home. This turns out to be his daughter who, after ‘bewail[ing] her virginity upon the mountains’ for two months, is duly slaughtered. The operatic precedent was Campra’s Idomenée (1712), which ends with the death of Idamante; but Pellegrin softened the grim original – as Morell was to for Handel’s oratorio Jephtha (1752) – by allowing the girl to survive.

Pellegrin gave Jephté’s daughter a name, Iphise. It’s possible that Morell knew of this when he chose the name Iphis; perhaps both had another sacrificial victim, Iphigenia, in mind. Pellegrin also balances Jephté’s predicament with a new element: it’s Iphise’s repentance of her (mutual) love for the enemy Ammon that saves her at the end, after the unfortunate man and his followers have been blasted by lightning during their attempt at rescue.

The action is cast in the standard form of a prologue and five acts. The prologue is set on the stage of the Opéra itself, where Apollo, Venus and other mythical figures are celebrating various pleasures. They are sent packing by La Vérité – Truth – who commands her followers to prepare the stage for the edifying tale of Jephté; she ends with a paean of praise for the (unnamed) Louis XV. The action begins with Jephté’s preparation for battle with the Ammonites – the waters of the Jordan obligingly parting when he makes his deal with God – and continues in Act 3 with the dramatic irony of the victory celebrations juxtaposed with his expressions of remorse and despair. The odd-numbered acts feature the scenes for Iphise and Ammon, and for Iphise and her mother Almasie.

The music is the usual mixture of song and dance, the former including secco recitative, arioso and air for the soloists, and much work for the chorus. The D minor of the stern Overture (sounding a semitone lower than the pitch of today) is heard again in the Act 3 divertissement, where the fine Chaconne for the orchestra is seamlessly rounded off by two soloists and chorus. There are chromatic touches, such as the rising bass when Almasie informs her daughter that she must die. Montéclair’s orchestration is a constant source of delight. In many of the numbers the continuo is silent, lending a charming airiness to the texture: nowhere more so than in Iphise’s ‘Ruisseaux, qui serpentez sur ces fertiles bords’, where the streams are illustrated by a battery of recorders supported only by the violins.

This recording is of the third edition of 1737, which was being rehearsed when Montéclair died. So Jephté’s first monologue opens with ‘Rivages du Jourdain’ rather than the ‘Sacré séjour’ quoted in Benoît Dratwicki’s invaluable booklet note. Tassis Christoyannis is firm and authoritative at the outset; later on, he is deeply moving as Jephté begs God to grant him the mercy accorded to Abraham and Isaac. Thomas Dolié as Phinée, the High Priest, is powerful, too. With the chorus and orchestra they are formidable in the pounding crotchets of ‘La terre, l’enfer’ (disc 1, track 28). Chantal Santon Jeffery finds strength as well as tenderness in Iphise: the latter quality to the fore in ‘Mes yeux, éteignez dans vos larmes’, another air unanchored by the continuo. Judith van Wanroij, complemented by fierce octaves in the strings, narrates Almasie’s dream of a fearful storm with believable terror. The slight edge to Zachary Wilder’s tone seems entirely appropriate for the hapless Ammon. As ever, nothing but praise for Vashegyi, the Purcell Choir and the Orfeo Orchestra.

The translation of the libretto, eccentric and ungrammatical in places, is serviceable. The recording by Les Arts Florissants under William Christie was highly praised by Julie Anne Sadie. We are fortunate to have two excellent versions of such a magnificent rarity.

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