Handel's penultimate work, Jephtha, is a Greek tragedy disguised as an oratorio. The story, loosely adapted from the biblical Book of Judges and greatly embellished, concerns an Israelite commander who makes a vow to God in exchange for victory. When it comes time to live up to his part of the bargain, he's faced with the cruel prospect of sacrificing his only daughter. This religious drama of simple grandeur, like Verdi's Otello or Beethoven's late quartets, is very much the masterpiece of an artist in the autumn of his creativity. Handel, who was ill and losing his sight, nonetheless offers probing psychological portraits of his characters by focusing on the anguish and sufferings of Jephtha and his family when confronted with capricious destiny and the dark impenetrability of God. Admittedly, there is a "happy ending": God relents but stipulates that the daughter remain "in pure and virgin state forever"--a resolution that reflects the sentimental puritanism of Handel's time. Or as one pundit has pointed out, the jubilant finale is "an elaborate paean in praise of a condition which the Bible tells us was a matter for wailing." Among other highlights are an "operate quartet whose dramatic intensity presaged the more famous ones by Mozart and Wagner, and the perennial favorite chorus, "Waft Her, Angels." In this Music of the Baroque presentation, the quartet of soloists is lead by two eminent (and busy) Handelians, tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson and countertenor Jeffrey Gail. Thomas Wikman conducts [is exceptional chorus and instrumental ensemble. Wednesday, 8 PM First United Methodist Church of Evanston, 1630 Hinman, Evanston. Next Friday, November 18, 7:30 PM St. Pauls United Church of Christ, 2335 N. Orchard. Sunday, Novmber 20, 3 PM, United Church of Hyde Park, 1448 E. 5 3rd. 461-9541.