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MACMILLAN: Clemency

spacer Abraham, Trainor; Kravitz, Ferreira, Levine, McFerrin; Hodgdon, piano; Boston Lyric Opera Orchestra, Angus. English text. BIS 2129

ClemencyCD

James MacMillan’s one-act chamber opera Clemency had its North American premiere in February 2013 as part of Boston Lyric Opera’s adventurous “Opera Annex” series. Clemency is adapted from the Old Testament episode in which Abraham and Sarah are visited by three travelers who threaten to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of the misdeeds of the citizenry. They also predict that the elderly Sarah will soon bear a child. BLO, which co-commissioned the work along with Covent Garden and a few other companies, wished to turn its production of this fifty-minute piece into an evening of a more substantial length and thus decided to append the early, fifteen-minute Schubert song “Hagars Klage” to the beginning. Hagar, the handmaiden to Sarah and mistress to Abraham himself, bore Abraham a son, Ishmael, who went on to become the father of the Abrahamic line that gave rise to Islam. In the Schubert song, Hagar grieves over what she sees as Ishmael’s all but certain impending death. “Hagar’s Lament” (in conductor David Angus’s English translation) and Clemency are mutually illuminating, to be sure, and it’s certainly wonderful to hear the Schubert in any case, especially in Michelle Trainor’s gleaming rendition. However, MacMillan says his Biblical adaptation is intended to be modern, not ancient. His own decidedly contemporary score certainly supports this, but the nineteenth-century Schubert song obviously does not.

No matter: MacMillan’s opera proper pulses with vibrant urgency. The travelers, who always sing as a trio, announce the impetus behind their mission in a cri de coeurthat explicitly outlines the ruinous condition of their homeland. (“Those who once ate fine foods now grub in the streets,” they wail in Michael Symmons Roberts’s effective libretto.) This is followed by a passage of intense chanting that conveys heightened emotion as fully as any comprehensible text could have. Sarah, rejuvenated by the prediction of her impending fertility, launches into angular yet lyrical flights of ecstasy. Soprano Christine Abraham soars through this section with a marvelously impassioned delivery. Instrumentally speaking, the passage (like the entire opera) is driven by the brilliantly intense string writing, which is given sure-handed, dramatically potent shape by conductor Angus.

The character Abraham begs the travelers to spare the twin towns if they can find fifty acts of selflessness. Then, as one might expect, he bargains them down from fifty to five. By the time he gets to the end, his music overflows with humanity — a striking plea for mercy from one of the great patriarchs of human history. Baritone David Kravitz is magnificently stentorian and resonant — just the kind of singer you would want playing such a towering figure. The last scene belongs to Sarah. The travelers have set off on their potentially violent mission, and she is left with her reveries as she imgines a future full of the contradictions the travelers have implied: “I will sing … new songs of gratitude and terror, rescue and loss.”

Neal Ferreira, Samuel Levine and David McFerrin, as the travelers, are somehow larger than life as a trio, and they manage MacMillan’s difficult part-writing with ease. Notice should also be taken of Brett Hodgdon, the highly adept pianist for “Hagar’s Lament,” and the ferocious string players of the Boston Lyric Opera Orchestra. This is a singularly worthy and unexpectedly gripping new work in an exemplary production by BLO. spacer 

JOSHUA ROSENBLUM

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