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Lisa Milne (Sian) and Peter Hoare (Mal) [Photo by Catherine Ashmore]
14 Nov 2007

“The Sacrifice” – Welsh National World Premiere Tour

Welsh National Opera’s new opera “The Sacrifice”, composed by James MacMillan with libretto by Michael Symmons Roberts, and directed by Katie Mitchell, is an emotionally raw and compelling study of the nature of conflict, and how humans are changed by it.

James MacMillan: The Sacrifice
Welsh National Opera

Above: Lisa Milne (Sian) and Peter Hoare (Mal)
Photo by Catherine Ashmore


Based on the Branwen story from the ancient Welsh collection of folktales known as the The Mabinogion, it is nevertheless uncompromising in its attempt to bring the opera into a 21st century context. Whether this works is open to question and, on first acquaintance, the answer would seem to be a regretful “no”. Not for the fact of its contemporary-looking setting, (supposedly a few decades in the future but actually reminding one more of an East German hotel circa 1985) but because it confuses an audience as to what and when that world is meant to be. Here, the the storyline follows a politically arranged wedding of two significant members of opposing armed political camps which is intended to bring together the two warring factions and, seven years later, the investiture of their son which is meant to cement the union. This is a timeless story, and as such it needs no making “relevant” to our recent experiences of Northern Ireland, Bosnia or Palestine. Indeed, in so doing, the authors have weakened the strongest points it is trying to make. Some ten years in the making, perhaps The Sacrifice has suffered the perennial problem that besets all long-winded projects, be they artistic or commercial: what seemed vital and relevant a decade ago now projects to today’s audience as predictable and, worse, disappointing.

However, what does work in a devastatingly effective way is MacMillan’s visceral and multi-textured score where every aspect of the modern orchestra is used in imaginative and compelling ways: the strange opening triad chords of the overture immediately evoke an atmosphere that captures the essence of the piece and this magic continues throughout. Robert’s ingenious libretto of semi-rhyming couplets gives the music plenty of space and expertly conveys the tensions and uncertainties of the protagonists. Over 70 musicians and percussionists of the WNO Orchestra are conducted by the composer in this inaugural run, and they play with intense musicality and commitment, obviously relishing the detailed chromatic sound world he has created. Equally successful is his writing for the WNO Chorus and the solo singers and it was on hearing some of the most potent arias and ensembles for the first time that one was struck by how very traditional, in some ways, this opera is: full orchestra, a substantial acting Chorus, a soprano heroine, a second soprano sub-plot character, tenor and baritone opposing male leads and a “father figure” bass-baritone. The only slight difference, on paper, between this and any 19th century mainstream opera is that our heroine loves the baritone, not the tenor, who turns out to be the nearest thing to the traditional “baddie” – although no-one in the story is morally clear cut.

Act One sets the scene of the two warring “tribes” or factions, holed up in the same depressing, shoddy hotel, scarred by the occasional bullet hole, and awaiting the fateful wedding of Sian, the first faction’s General’s daughter to Mal, the opposing faction’s famed “freedom” fighter. Sian’s real love, Evan, a soldier in the General’s army, watches with increasing bitterness and jealousy as the woman he loves appears ready to betray both him and their faction in the cause of a peace brokered by her father, in what will be an attempt to end the decades, or maybe centuries, of conflict. The final scene ends in violence with Evan attempting to kill Mal, but only succeeding in wounding him.

In Act Two, seven years having passed and Sian and Mal now have two small boys, but with Evan newly released from captivity the semi-crippled Mal is convinced his wife is still seeing her old love. He is right – they do meet, and sing the marvellously emotive and soaring duet “Your heart is my homeland” before Evan is again forced to flee. Meanwhile, the first born son of the unhappy couple is due to be crowned “regent” – a new king in waiting who will, the General hopes, finally confirm the transition from uneasy truce to unified nation. Again violence and horror dash all such hope in a way all too familiar in the history of human conflict.

The final Act begins with a funeral, and some sumptuous choral writing that is communicative of all the longing and distress of any war-torn nation. In a final act of sacrifice to his dream of a unified country and an end to the eternal conflict, the General opens up the possibility of hope, although the auguries are not good.

Many people have commented on MacMillan’s use of musical “signposts” in his writing, his quotations and borrowings of musical forms and ideas. Nothing new in that of course, and in The Sacrifice, many of these quotes work extremely well and indeed suggest aural landmarks in the wider landscape of the score. Echoes of a Bach passacaglia, Purcell word-setting (especially noticeable in Sian’s funeral lament) and even some Wagnerian-style leitmotifs on the percussion and strings all float in and out of our conscious perception without ever compromising the essence of the original music which is in turns richly melodic and tangentially percussive. Boring or repetitive it is not.

The score is lit from within by the solo work of the excellent singers who without exception give fine readings of both their music and their characterisations. There was no weak link, although probably one must single out the opulent-voiced Lisa Milne as Sian who rose magnificently to the challenge of some difficult yet rewarding writing. Her duet with Leigh Melrose as Evan was eloquent and fine-spun, working well with Melrose’s warm yet appropriately edged baritone. He was able to suggest the knife-edge character of Evan – a Celtic split personality capable of great love and great hatred at one and the same time. Christopher Purves was deeply convincing as the General, his voice easy in the lowest registers, and able to communicate the desperate hope, and final realisation, of what he has to do. As her possibly-autistic, certainly not “normal” sister Megan, Ailish Tynan had the most pure physical acting to do, but she also was able to subtly shade her bright soprano to suggest an underlying fear and fore-knowledge of events as she chanted lines of runic verse and obscure forecasts. The most complex role is that of Mal – freedom fighter/guerrilla, killer turned political leader, jealous husband and loving father, desperately trying to understand a changing world, and changing moralities. Peter Hoare’s highly-charged and robust tenor was a perfect instrument for Mal, flying high with rage but also able to colour and darken with emotional intensity. Rosie Hay, Samantha Hay, Amanda Baldwin sang the supporting roles of the Three Birds with conviction, even if one might question their necessity in the drama. All the soloists were superbly supported and enhanced by the WNO Chorus, who seemed completely at home with their music with some nuanced singing, producing an admirable amalgam of light and shade.

The caveats regarding setting aside, it was a tremendous evening of music theatre, and Welsh National, MacMillan and Roberts are to be congratulated on a work that is, without doubt, an important one, and one that will take its rightful place in the repertory.

© Sue Loder 2007

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