JEPHTHA by Handel
Conceptual Set and Costume Design
Wales Millennium Centre
Directed by Polly Graham
If Jephtha is willing to sacrifice his own daughter to achieve glory and victory in war, what does this mean for the rest of the children of Israel at the end of the Opera?
In a modern context and for secular audiences, this epic work comments on the notion that religious ritual and absolutist belief in God is the vehicle for the veneration of war and sacrifice. I started thinking of Jephtha’s actual religion as ‘war’ under the facade of a belief in God, enabling him to commit acts of violence for good in order to gain territory. Throughout the opera there is a shocking glorification of violence and a removal of guilt, as God endorses it.
Director Polly Graham and I decided there should be no indication that God exists in the world we created, instead it is a study of the worst traits of the human condition, and blame is unable to be passed to a capricious God.
I wanted to create a design that manifests Jephtha’s view of himself not as an outcast, but as a leader of people. I became fascinated by examples of architecture which claim to be for the purpose of worship but are instead showcases of papal/ a dictator’s power. Napoleon’s tomb seemed especially relevant as a church emblazoned with imagery celebrating war. I wanted to create a ‘church of war’ where Jephtha feels agrandised and is the epicentre of his fantastical delusions. ‘Epicentre’ seemed particularly poignant in learning that Handel’s eyesight had diminished at the time of writing. The design draws from tunnel vision as a metaphor, as well as from Baroque domes where murals depicting the ascension of the virgin are commonplace. Through applying layers of history to the space I intended to comment on the way in which history repeats itself through a cultural celebration of war and violence.
If Jephtha believes himself to be God-like then the ‘cherubim and seraphim’ that perform a ‘bloody slaughter’ are undoubtably missiles in a modern context - they are the tools of peace idolised by his people. The way in which they are sung about in a hysterically jubilant major key reminded me of modern day extremism, and, disturbingly as this idea developed I realised that ‘Wafting her to the skies’ placed Iphis as a bomber ascending crucifix like to her end; As God sacrificed his own child on the cross, Jephtha, in believing himself to be god-like attempts to do the same.
Returning to the idea of engine of war I wanted the atrium space to at first appear sacred, with transcepts, an altar etc, yet as the work unravels it becomes evident that the altar is in fact a viewpoint through the dome to the crypts below, and the military platforms enable Jephtha to oversee the progress of munition production. In the final Act the two transcepts will truck out (see central image of white card) to reveal missiles hanging sarcophagus like in the final chorus of ‘Ye blest angels all around’.