The Vow. Music by G.F. Handel. Adapted from Thomas Morell's libretto to Jephtha by Tobias Cole. Directed by Tobias Cole. Conducted by Brett Weymark. Handel in the Theatre. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre. October 8 at 7.30pm, October 9 at 3pm. Tickets $39-$79: 6275 2700 or canberratheatre.com.au.
"Reached here on 13 February 1751, unable to go on owing to weakening of the sight of my left eye."
George Frideric Handel wrote those words in the score of his oratorio Jephtha at the end of the chorus "How dark, O Lord, are Thy decrees."
How dark indeed! Within a year, Handel would be blind and compose no more music.
Tobias Cole, however, hopes that The Vow, a staged version of that oratorio, will be the first of many works his new Canberra-based company Handel in the Theatre produces.
Cole, a leading Australian counter-tenor, discovered Handel at school, where he sang Zadok the Priest (a staple of every British coronation since George II's in 1727) and choruses from Messiah.
"I was struck by the harmonies changing in more dangerous ways than in Mozart," Cole says. "I sang Messiah in choir at Sydney University; got to know his operas; and went over to London and performed in operas there. I remember picking up an opera I'd never heard of and thinking: 'Wow, there's so much yet to learn! This is exciting! This guy is dangerous!'
"What really endeared him to me was his risk-taking. He didn't play according to the rules. He kept with the same genre, opera seria, for many years, but he explored its potential – 'How can I play with this? How can I make this richer?' And that's what fascinates me."
Since his student days, Cole has sung principal roles in Handel operas with Opera Australia and Pinchgut in Sydney, and overseas with the Chicago Opera Theatre and the London Handel Festival. As artistic director of the Canberra Choral Society, he staged four Handel oratorios to great success: Saul in 2012, Theodora in 2013, the Australian premiere of Alexander Balus in 2014, and Hercules in 2015.
Cole realised, however, that Handel's works needed their own production company separate from the choir.
"To focus on Handel and create something that could tour is beyond the capacity of an organisation essentially made up of volunteers, whose program is not just the Handel work each year."
The new company is dedicated to staging Handel's oratorios, concert works sung in English that are often based on Old Testament stories.
Handel turned to the oratorio at the end of his career, after the British public tired of his Italian operas: musical and scenic spectaculars based on classical myth, medieval romance or history, with castrati singing elaborate, highly ornamented da capo arias.
Neglected for nearly two centuries after Handel's death in 1759, musicians started to rediscover the operas in the 1920s, while great singers – Marilyn Horne, Joan Sutherland, Yvonne Kenny, Ewa Podles, Cecilia Bartoli and Philippe Jaroussky – made them popular with audiences worldwide.
Many of Handel's oratorios, however, are still unfamiliar.
"I love this genre," Cole says, "because it's in English to start with, it's dramatic and it doesn't have a precedent of staging. While these works have been staged in Europe over the last 40-odd years, we can't go back to the originals and say it was done originally like this, because it was done in a concert version. It was much cheaper for Handel if he didn't have to stage it, and there was a ruling against staging Old Testament and Bible stories." The ruling was still in place when Saint-Saens's Samson et Dalila and Richard Strauss' Salome reached London a century and a half later.
Jephtha tells the old story of the father (tenor Andrew Goodwin) who rashly promises to sacrifice the first living thing he sees – and is horrified to find he must kill his own daughter Iphis (soprano Jacqueline Porter). Idomeneo, Mozart's first mature opera, tells a similar story, while the tale echoes the Greek legend of Agamemnon sacrificing Iphigenia and the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac.
Cole, who also sings the role of Iphis's lover Hamor, directs the show.
"Its principal theme is virtue fighting with fate and love to ask which has the strongest power over people," he says.
Although the oratorio is based on an Old Testament story, Cole has given it the feeling of Eastern Europe under Soviet occupation.
"I like contemporary settings," he explains. "For me, it's easier to find reality in them. When I say contemporary, I simply mean 20th century, so the setting has a feeling of Eastern-bloc decay. We're dealing with themes or stories that are quite ancient, so while the themes are eternal, it helps the audience and the performers to hold onto characters that they can relate to – particularly characters they have either seen on stage or in film."
He compares the character of Jephtha to Walter White in the popular television series Breaking Bad, who also disguises his selfishness under a cloak of virtue, while the theme of fate and characters controlled by higher powers remind him of the spies in John Le Carre's novels.
The oratorio is in three acts, but Cole puts the interval in the middle of the second act, at the dramatic moment when Jephtha sees his daughter and has to fulfil the vow.
The oratorio originally ended with rejoicing after an angel appears and stops the sacrifice, but Cole cut the final scene.
"The appearance of the angel is ambiguous,' he says. 'Is it a dream? Is it actually happening?"
Cole's ambition is to create work that is discussed and compared with other productions around the world.
"What we're doing is unique," he says. "Although all the Handel festivals will usually stage an opera each year, I don't know of a company in the world dedicated to staging Handel oratorios each year."