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James MacMillan [Photo by Philip Gatward courtesy of Boosey & Hawkes
22 May 2011

James MacMillan’s Clemency, Royal Opera

James MacMillan has reunited with his librettist, the poet Michael Symmons Roberts, to produce his new opera Clemency.

James MacMillan: Clemency; Benjamin Britten: Sinfonia

Sarah: Janis Kelly; Abraham: Grant Doyle; Triplets: Adam Green, Eamonn Mulhall, Andrew Tortise Director: Katie Mitchell. Stage Design: Alex Eales. Costume Design: John Bright. Lighting Design: Jon Clark. Movement Director: Joseph Alford. Assistant Director: Dan Ayling. Conductor: Clark Rundell. Royal Opera House, Linbury Studio Theatre, Saturday 7th May 2011.

Above: James MacMillan [Photo by Philip Gatward courtesy of Boosey & Hawkes]


As with their two previous operatic collaborations, The Sacrifice (WNO, 2007) and Parthenogenesis (Royal Opera, 2009) the work was directed by Katie Mitchell. Clemency premièred at the Royal Opera’s Linbury Studio Theatre on 6th May 2011 (seen 7th May), and the work is a co-commission with Scottish Opera, the Britten Sinfonia and Boston Lyric Opera.

Like the previous two works, the opera examines the interaction between the mythic and the everyday. MacMillan and Symmons Roberts have turned to a slightly curious biblical episode for their source. Abraham and Sarah are visited by 3 strangers, they offer hospitality to the strangers, who inform Sarah that when they return in a year’s time Sarah will have a son, something she disbelieves because of her age. The three then reveal themselves as angels. When asked where they are going the strangers say they are going to the twin towns by the lake (Sodom and Gomorrah), that their business is vengeance. Abraham and Sarah dispute with the angels to try and save the townspeople.

MacMillan, Symmons Roberts and Mitchell have set the opera firmly in the downtrodden present. Alex Eales set showed three rooms side by side, enclosed by picture frames like a religious triptych. The opera opened in silence as Sarah (Janis Kelly, looking suitably dowdy), prepared lunch in the shabby kitchen (stage right) as Abraham (Grant Doyle) entered the living space (stage centre) and busied himself counting money and singing Hebrew to himself unaccompanied. Only after some time did MacMillan bring in the accompaniment of the Britten Sinfonia in a wonderful gesture of expanding the textures.

Abraham and Sarah share lunch, developing Abraham’s blessing into a lovely duet. 3 strangers appear, looking like migrant workers, named the Triplets in the programme (Adam Green, Eamonn Mulhall and Andrew Tortise). Though Abraham and Sarah do not recognise them, they offer hospitality, providing lunch. But MacMillan uses musical means to ensure that we do recognise them. The three sing in the sort of modified homophony familiar from MacMillan’s sacred music. He gives the Triplets their own sound-world which has a wonderfully transfigurative effect, contrasting with Abraham and Sarah with their rich string accompaniment.

The opera was accompanied just by the strings of the Britten Sinfonia, numbering 24 in all. They formed more than a simple accompaniment to the dialogue, the multi-textured strings seemed to lie very much in the rich tradition of British string music. The warm, resonant, interlinked textures seemed to speak much of Abraham and Sarah’s long, warm relationship.

When the Triplets reveal themselves they did so by fire and by speaking in tongues. Here MacMillan’s music took on a numinous quality and Mitchell’s deceptively natural production captured their strangeness and the disturbing effect the presence of three angels had on Abraham and Sarah’s routine existence.

The realisation that the news of the impending baby is a revelation from God was too much for Sarah who went back into the kitchen, contemplating the news in an ecstatic solo.

In a brilliant piece of stage-craft the room shown stage left, is not a separate room but the other half of the centre room, so that when the Triplets, Abraham and Sarah sit round the table we see them facing us in the two rooms. This enabled Doyle and Kelly to react to the men whilst all remained facing us. The Triplets changed into business suits, looking like hit-men complete with guns and to a horrified Abraham and Sarah revealed the sins of the cities (complete with images on their mobile phones) and their planned retribution.

Abraham and Sarah attempted to stop the Triplets, trying to bargain with them on the number of good inhabitants necessary to stop the planned retribution. Here the musical and dramatic set up of the earlier scenes became important as our belief in numinous nature of the Triplets, helped by both MacMillan’s music and Doyle and Kelly’s vividly natural reaction, fed into our understanding of the nature of what Abraham was doing, arguing with the word of God.

The opera finished not in a blaze, but in a quiet contemplation mirroring the opening. As Abraham rushed out after the departed Triplets, Kelly’s Sarah was left contemplating the future of her baby in a world where the twin town had been destroyed.

This was the third opera of MacMillan’s that I had seen and for me it felt the most accessible. MacMillan’s musical language relied quite heavily on the ornamentally inflected chant figures which can be found in much of his sacred music. Owing much to Scottish Gaelic influences, here they took on a Middle-Eastern flavour without ever approaching pastiche. The vocal lines were approachably lyric, full of interest and, where necessary, filled with a sense of the numinous. The principal thing I brought away from the performance was the fine sense of contrast between the music for the Triplets and the multi-layered string accompaniment.

This did not feel like a première run, the performances from all the principals felt so natural and complete, that it seemed as if they had been performing the piece for ever. Doyle and Kelly were completely absorbing as the settled married couple. Green, Mulhall and Tortise as young men only half aware of the disturbance their presence created, were suitably ambiguous as to who the trio really were.. Macmillan used the Tortise’s high tenor register to brilliant effect, and the singer coped admirably with the role’s challenging tessitura. All three formed a finely balanced ensemble.

With no surtitles we relied on the singers diction to enlighten us and generally the diction was excellent, the words crystal clear. Only in the more ecstatic sections did Janis Kelly rather leave us behind.

In the pit, the Britten Sinfonia under conductor Clark Rundell, made a fine rich sound, sonorously expressive. Like the singers, it felt as if the group had been playing this music all their lives.

At only 50 minutes this was quite a short evening’s entertainment, though MacMillan and Symmons Robert’s work is quite intense and will be tricky to place in a longer programme. Our hope must be that now MacMillan will create a companion piece for this wonderful work. The piece is scheduled to be seen in Scotland in 2012.

Robert Hugill

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