Meyerbeer's first opera, Jephtas Gelubde, has a libretto by the German academic Alois Schreiber, based on a Biblical theme taken from chapters 11-12 of the Book of Judges. The story centres on the vow the ancient Israelite Judge made to God in return for victory over the enemy: "If thou wilt give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes forth from the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious . . . I will offer him up for a burnt offering." The first person he was fatefully to meet was his daughter whom he offered in sacrifice after a time of mourning in the hills with her friends. The story reflects the ancient belief that a human being must be sacrificed in time of social stress, as well as the pagan tradition of Weeping for Tammuz, the beautiful youth killed by a boar but resurrected, symbolizing the conquest of Winter by Summer. The operatic scenario sketches the agonized character of Jephtha powerfully, and develops a fictional love triangle around the core narrative-between the daughter (Sulima), a young warrior (Asmavett), and a jealous, vengeful villain (Abdon). The tragic ending of the Biblical tale is transformed into a rescue opera by divine intervention at the last minute: Sulima is saved from death and God shown to be merciful. The conflict between paternal love and loyalty to country intrinsic to this story was also the basic theme of the opera scenario, and is reflected in the overture, a symphonic anticipation of the essential features of the action. The opera, whose final rehearsals were conducted by the composer in person, was admirably produced by the Munich Court Opera on 23 December 1812, but on account of its novelty met with indifference, so that it was withdrawn. A newspaper report did, however, observe: "A delicate sensibility, united to a profound and mature insight into the workings of the impassioned human heart, is manifested throughout in a grand and elevated style that gives promise of something great in the future." This score contains the seeds of the whole of Meyerbeer's future development. It is impossible to conceive of Meyerbeer's progress to mastership without the Jephta score. Meyerbeer was responding to the heritage of his predecessors, the Handel of the oratorios (in the depiction of grandiose biblical drama), and the Gluck of the tragedie lyrique (in the depth of both public and private emotional expression), but was also alert to issues in contemporary opera, like the rescue motif and development of the villain. There is also evidence of Meyerbeer's famed orchestral virtuosity and imagination already at work. In his psychological exploration, Meyerbeer even now begins to use thematic tagging and foreshadowing most imaginatively, and points the way far beyond Gluck, in the direction of Weber and Wagner. What is amazing about this opera, with an overture and 15 numbers, is that there is not a weak piece in the score. Some numbers are incidental and occasional, some others much stronger, but all are carefully structured and controlled in length and purpose. The finale to act 2 is monumental in design and the music is dramatically apposite by any standard. So are the emotional probings of Jephtha's act 3 Soliloquy, Sulima's rhapsodic arias of hope in acts 2 and 3, Abdon's desolating Revenge Scene in act 1, and the melting bel canto duet for Sulima and Asmavett at the heart of the opera. The issues of love and duty addressed by this story, and realized in this fresh and unknown music, have the power to affect the heart still. A performing edition of the opera has been prepared from the manuscript source: text by Robert Letellier, music by Mark Starr. Cambridge Scholars Publishing prints the vocal score and the orchestral score. The orchestral parts are included in the catalogue of Noteworthy Musical Editions' Rental Library who make the parts available to opera companies for staged productions.
About the Author: Robert Ignatius Letellier was born in Durban, and educated in Grahamstown, Cambridge, Salzburg, Rome and Jerusalem. He is a member of Trinity College, Cambridge; the Salzburg Centre for Research in the Early English Novel, University of Salzburg; the Maryvale Institute, Birmingham; and the Institute for Continuing Education at Madingley Hall, Cambridge. His publications include books and articles on the late-seventeenth-, eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century novel (particularly the Gothic novel and Sir Walter Scott), the Bible, and European culture, with special emphasis on the Romantic opera and ballet, particularly the work of Giacomo Meyerbeer (a four-volume English edition of his diaries, a collection of studies, a reading of the operas, and a guide to research), Daniel-Francois-Esprit Auber and the opera-comique, Ludwig Minkus and the Romantic Ballet. Mark Starr, conductor, teacher and musicologist, is a native of New York. He was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and studied conducting at the Santa Cecilia Conservatory in Rome. In 1970, he joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin and in 1972 became a conductor and professor at Stanford. He has conducted many orchestras both in the United States and in Europe (Radio-France in Paris, l'Orchestre national and l'Orchestre philharmonique, the Residence-Orkest of The Hague, the orchestras of the Netherlands Radio Union in Hilversum, the Orchestre national de Monte-Carlo, the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra, and the Berliner Konzerthaus Orchester, formerly the Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester). He runs a website for Noteworthy Musical Editions, a project involving the compilation of the various catalogues and the demo recordings for each work featured.