Encounters

Refusing the end

Interview with Claus Guth — By Yvonne Gebauer

Invited to stage Handel’s oratorio, Claus Guth has chosen to seize the bull by the horns and question the very notion of fatality that governs the work: “Must it really be this way?”


The myth of Jephtha deals with the question of oaths and sacrifice. How do these themes speak to us today?

In effect, before leaving for battle against a neighbouring tribe, Jephtha promises God to sacrifice the first living creature he encounters on his return. Having won the battle, the first living thing he meets on his way back is his only daughter. Not wishing to break his oath, he sacrifices her. At first sight, this story appears archaic, dry and brutal, very disturbing also since, in all evidence, it stages a human sacrifice. The reception of the work has been marked by this for centuries and the story, which offers no explicit moral message, has been the subject of much questioning. Is this an illustration of religious faith misunderstood, or that of human hubris? Is Jephtha a criminal or a victim of circumstances? It is significant that, even at this time, human sacrifice was not common in Israel where, on the contrary, it was forbidden; it was a more widespread practice among Israel’s enemies.

How do you interpret his gesture?

We have chosen to narrate part of the story's antecedents as of the overture, in order to show where Jephtha was coming from and the burdens he had to carry during his life. What do we know of the reasons that prompted Jephtha to make this vow? The Bible tells us nothing on this subject … After undergoing so many setbacks, after all those years spent isolated from the world, in utter solitude, he finds himself in a state of euphoria, of excessive pride, of hubris. The fact that he has been sought out, that he begins to feel that reparation might be possible, excites a sort of megalomania in him. He believes himself to be in a position to negotiate with God, offering to sacrifice a human life in exchange for his help in securing a victory.

How have you compensated for the Bible’s omissions?

We have drawn on the novel Jefta und siene Tochter (Jephtha and his daughter) by Lion Feuchtwanger, a work that delves into the historic sources whilst opening up an imaginative dimension within the narrative. In it one learns something absolutely essential to the story: Jephtha is illegitimate, a marginal, an underdog whose family history reveals some important incidents. At the point at which the oratorio begins, many things have already taken place: Galaad, his father and a celebrated judge, had three sons (in Handel, there are two) only two of whom are legitimate, Jephtha, the youngest, being the son of a prostitute. He is, nevertheless, his father’s favourite; but when his father dies, Jephtha is disinherited and denied succession to the position of judge. His family casts him aside. He has to leave his homeland and seek refuge in the desert where he remains for eighteen years.

Handel’s oratorio deviates from the myth…

Yes. The end of the Bible story is brutal and shocking and shows Iphis sacrificed by her father. When the work was first performed, such an ending was unthinkable for an oratorio: so an angel appears, saving Iphis’s life before the sacrifice can take place. This raises questions for us about the reasons for this deliverance. The appearance of the angel is without doubt the librettist’s most interesting modification of the biblical narrative. We have taken this angel very seriously and completely literally, but we also asked ourselves the following question: in what state of delirium must one be to see a vision of an angel? What is the psychological state of those about to witness the appearance of an angel or the performing of a miracle?

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