Ars Lyrica Opens Jephtha This Saturday

The ensemble's new Fables & Follies season brings this stirring—and challenging—masterpiece to the Hobby Center.

With Sydney Boyd October 10, 2016

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We’ve been warned about making deals with the devil, but what about swearing an oath to the heavens? In the case of Jephtha—a 1751 oratorio by George Frideric Handel that originated from the fire and brimstone text of the Old Testament—it means you’ll win the fight, but you might have to sacrifice your daughter. 

Since 1998, Ars Lyrica continues to bring rare works from the 17th and 18th centuries to Houston, but Jephtha stands out. As the very last oratorio Handel wrote, it’s beautiful, but hardly ever performed. In fact, artistic director Matthew Dirst thinks it’s safe to call this production a Houston premiere.

Tenor Derek Chester, who sings the title role, has sung the lead in seven Handel works, but Jephtha is so rare that he's never even seen it performed.

“Of course there’s a very famous aria that most tenors know,” says Chester, referring to the notorious 'Waft her, angels, through the skies' aria that sounds like a pristine sunset. “I’ve known it, and I’ve taught it to students, but this will be the first time I sing it.” 

While the oratorio sounds exquisite, it’s a technical feat to perform. In preparation for the role, Chester said he worked hard just at the level of the text—reading it aloud, marking punctuation to make the words flow like a speech while still making sense as music. 

The singing, however, took endless repetition and muscle training. An aria near the end of scene two, for example, stretches the phrase “the haughty foe” for two systems of the score—an excruciatingly long time to say the least.

“You’ve got to take it fast,” says Chester. “And you’ve really got to make sure you have the right amount of air to get through the entire range from very high to very low—it’s not what you expect, it kind of takes a right turn. I’ve probably sung it 300 times already.”

Handel's work also asks singers to flex their talent in very period-specific ways. Mezzo-soprano Sofia Selowsky, who will sing the role of Jephtha’s wife, sang in several new work premieres as a Studio Artist with the Houston Grand Opera last season. 

“How the composer uses the text is something that’s always going to stay the same—from Carlisle to Handel,” says Selowsky, referring to Carlisle Floyd’s world premiere of Prince of Players at Houston Grand Opera this March, where she sang the role of Nell Gwynn. “Handel is difficult because he asks a lot from the voice, from long sweeping phrases to the fioratura.” 

Wild vocal tricks and embellishments aside, the story is a drama. As Jephtha’s wife, Selowsky has to manage the emotions of the multifaceted character, whose beloved husband is trying to kill her daughter, all while performing vocal acrobatics. 

“Handel gives her quite a range of musical colors to play with,” says Selowsky. “You kind of get to see different facets of her—this loving side as a wife, and this very animalistic side of her as protector of her child.”

Like Chester, Selowsky has never seen or performed Jephtha. “I really respect that [Ars Lyrica] is doing lesser-known pieces—these hidden gems should be performed.” 

Oct 15 at 7:30; Oct 16 at 2:30. From $39. Ars Lyrica at The Hobby Center, 800 Bagby St. 713-622-7443.

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