At the frenetic rate George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) composed operas and oratorios, he frequently was constrained to beg, borrow and steal from himself and other composers in order to meet deadlines. In 1751, the composer embarked on what was to be his final major work, the oratorio Jephtha. Already the victim of several strokes and failing eyesight, he fleshed out the oratorio with reworkings of his own music – both vocal and instrumental – and “borrowings” from a set of masses by the Bohemian composer Franz Johann Habermann (1706-83), published in 1747 and with which Handel apparently had become familiar through his correspondence with Georg Philipp Telemann.

Saturday evening, the Choral Society of Durham, under conductor Rodney Wynkoop and with five excellent soloists, tackled Handel’s last oratorio. Although people in today’s litigious society might look askance at Handel’s musical ethics, it was certainly a worthwhile venture to mount a performance of the work. There are many beautiful and effective moments in this, one of the composer’s more operatic oratorios. Handel may have taken some musical shortcuts, but he had lost none of his taste, either for high drama and fine music. What he borrowed, he reworked effectively into a work that – in spite of some significant cutting by Wynkoop – still lasted a good 2 1/2 hours.

To cobble together such a major composition Handel dipped extensively into his previous creations – starting with the overture, which came from his opera Alceste. Six of the nine choral numbers had their provenance in Habermann’s masses – although with some significant alterations in the themes and counterpoint to fit the dramatic situation. While in some cases it was easy to distinguish between Handel and Habermann, we were frankly surprised to discover that some of the choruses we had thought original with Handel were actually Habermann “Handelized.”

Jephtha, while called an oratorio, borders on opera. In fact it is sometimes staged as an opera. Saturday’s soloists created a virtual semi-staged production with their voices, acting and facial expressiveness, making the performance quasi-operatic. Handel’s librettist, Thomas Morrell, fleshed out the bare-bones biblical story of Jephtha, the virtuous general of Israel’s underdog army battling the heathen Ammonites. Bargaining victory from God by offering as a sacrifice whoever (or whatever) he first lays eyes on after returning home from the battle, he discovers that his only daughter has run out ahead of everyone to greet him. To supplement Jephtha’s moral dilemma, Morrell gave Jephtha’s daughter a name (Iphis, giving her a symbolic connection with her counterpart in the Trojan War, Iphigenia), a mother (Storgé), to enhance the family drama, and a fiancé (Hamor, which in Hebrew means donkey – Morrell obviously did not read the Old Testament in its original language). All this and an angelus ex machina to boot, ordering the grieving father to send his daughter to a nunnery instead of killing her outright. (A good Christian, Morrell took it upon himself to rewrite the Hebrew Scriptures to keep God consistent, His having prohibited human sacrifice with Abraham.)

Wynkoop assembled a fine cast of soloists. William Hite as Jephtha, Judge of Israel and leader of the army, has a strong tenor voice with good diction that carried well; but he was more papa than general. In Part I, he came across as a less than charismatic military leader and a bit wooden, thanks in part to a rather wimpy aria. But in Parts II and III, he projected the caring, grieving father well, especially using his pianissimo extremely effectively to convey his despair. He made an excellent foil for mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lane’s passionate Storgé, whose fiery aria “Let other creatures die!” would have brought down the house if this had been a staged opera. Soprano Heather Buck as Iphis, has a voice with bell-like clarity, although Morrell’s libretto makes her unrealistically virtuous and uncomplaining in her role as sacrificial lamb.

Countertenor Mark Crayton as Hamor, a warrior and Iphis’ intended, has a good voice, but it lacks the depth that distinguishes a countertenor from a female mezzo-soprano. And finally basso John Kramar as Zebul, Jephtha’s half-brother, applied his resonant bass voice to a rather thankless part.

As we have come to expect from Wynkoop, the chorus of 130+ voices was excellently drilled, the entrances precise and the dynamic gradations and nuances outstanding. But Handel was slipshod in Jephtha‘s orchestration with violins and cellos continuously sawing away while the winds, with the exception of the oboes, and even the violas, sat on their hands for much of the score. The two trumpets literally had to sit it out until the end of Part III, without even a peep in part I at the point where Jephtha says “Sound, then, the last alarm!”

Last week’s New Yorker had a piece on the Handel revival of the past twenty years; Handel opera is now a mainstream, especially in the UK and US. With so much Handel now available in both live and recorded performance, does the quasi-Handel Jephtha deserve an equal place alongside the real stuff? We’d say, generally, yes. There are many exquisite moments in the work, and Habermann’s reworked choruses are among them. Wouldn’t it be interesting to hear the Choral Society of Durham perform one of Habermann’s masses?

One final comment. We have noticed over the past few years that choral performances continue to improve to near professional level and stellar soloists are being recruited from all over the country. Yet, upon counting the house at Baldwin on Saturday, we noted that the audience seemed to consist to a large extent – but not exclusively – of the family members of the chorus. Guys, you’ve got real music gems here! Why aren’t you out there patronizing and enjoying them? We get little enough Baroque – much less earlier music in this area. Jephtha was a big deal; you don’t get to hear it everyday – anywhere. If you want your local choral performances to continue at this level, get out there and show that quality matters.