James MACMILLAN (b. 1959)
The Sacrifice - Opera in Three Acts (2005-06) [131:06]
General – Christopher Purves (baritone); Sian – Lisa Milne (soprano); Mal – Peter Hoare (tenor); Evan Leigh McIrose (baritone); Megan – Sarah Tynan (soprano); ‘The Birds’ of Rhiannon/Three Dressers – Rosie Hay (soprano), Samantha Hay (soprano), Amanda Baldwin (mezzo)
Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera/Anthony Negus
rec. live, 8 October 2007, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
English libretto included
CHANDOS CHAN 10572(2) [55:01 + 76:05]
The Sacrifice, commissioned by Welsh National Opera, is James MacMillan’s second opera. This recording, made in association with the Peter Moores Foundation and the BBC, was made at a performance during the work’s inaugural run and I presume the source is a live broadcast by BBC Radio 3. The world première, a few nights earlier, on 22 September 2007, was reviewed for MusicWeb International by Bill Kenny. Bill saw and heard the same cast but on that occasion MacMillan himself conducted.
I reproduce below, with one small alteration, Bill’s succinct summary of the plot:
“After years of bitter conflict, Sian, daughter of a General marries Mal, the leader of a nearby kingdom to bring peace between the two warring nations. Still embittered by race hatred and jealousy, Sian's former lover Evan stabs Mal at the wedding and is imprisoned on the General's orders; the uneasy alliance is preserved. 
[Act II] Seven years pass and at the crowning of Mal and Sian's elder son Gwyn as the Boy King of the two united countries, Mal welcomes Evan to the ceremony, declaring that they are no longer enemies.  Evan thinks otherwise and, consumed by jealousy, takes a terrible revenge. [Act III] In the aftermath, when disaster seems inevitable, the General, though badly wounded by Mal in the former conflicts, disguises himself as Evan and deceives Mal into shooting him in turn. On discovery, this sacrifice seals the peace.”
The change I’ve made to Bill’s synopsis is to disguise the nature of Evan’s revenge. In his excellent booklet essay David Nice recommends that if, on first hearing the score, you want to experience something of the shock that the first night audience felt at this point then you should avoid reading ahead in the plot synopsis or libretto. I just about managed that and it’s worth taking the trouble.
As his librettist for The Sacrifice, MacMillan turned again to the poet Michael Symmons Roberts with whom he’d already collaborated on two earlier important works, Quickening (1998) (see review) and The Birds of Rhiannon (2001) (see review). They have taken a story from the medieval Welsh language anthology of tales, The Mabinogion – the source of inspiration also for The Birds of Rhiannon – which Symmons Roberts has skilfully worked into a parable not just for our times but for other times as well.
The General is a former soldier, who has been injured fighting guerrillas/terrorists (the cast list gives both alternatives). It is the General who has decided that a marriage between Mal, described as a reformed guerrilla/terrorist, and Sian, the General’s elder daughter, will help to bring about a rapprochement between their two countries/tribes/factions – one might even use the term “kick-start the peace process”. Sian has bought into this idea, largely out of a sense of duty, it seems, even though this means that she must bring to an end her relationship with Evan, the General’s right-hand man. When the action begins she and Evan are sharing one last tryst on the night before her wedding.
MacMillan and Symmons Roberts have been careful not to specify any location or time in history for the plot and this, I’m sure, is wise. At various points in the opera members of the chorus sing either the word “Shalom” or “Salaam” usually at the same time and thus one can easily infer that the authors have the troubles of the Middle East in mind. However, though The Sacrifice is a very political drama its points are put over firmly yet without being rammed down the audience’s collective throat. What is being put across here is a universal message about conflict and, to be honest, that message could relate just as clearly to, say, the Thirty Year’s War in seventeenth century Europe, to many other subsequent conflicts and, sadly, to conflicts yet to come. The message of The Sacrifice is not for the faint-hearted. It’s uncomfortable but it’s one that must be heeded.
Last year I reviewed, with great enthusiasm, MacMillan’s St. John Passion (2008). I mentioned then that MacMillan had said of that work that it was composed immediately after The Sacrifice and that the opera had a direct bearing on the Passion composition, even to the extent that “some of the opera music has drifted quite naturally into the new sphere”. I must be absolutely honest and say that so far I haven’t detected any thematic cross-references. However, the two works do share a number of common qualities. One is that of strong musical characterisation, albeit in the Passion there was only one solo character, that of Christ. Another is an absolute surefootedness in dramatic pacing. Throughout both works MacMillan maintains the tension magnificently yet he also recognises the occasions when an element of relaxation can provide really effective contrast amid the turmoil of the drama as a whole. Both works also display his expertise in handling choral crowd scenes. Finally both pieces show him to be a master of the modern orchestra; in both works the orchestra is a crucial protagonist and much of the orchestration is not just hugely effective but also extremely imaginative.
In a series of mainly powerful scenes MacMillan and Symmons Roberts move their story forward with what seems like an inexorable momentum and the key moments in the score, especially the point at which Evan takes his revenge, are set to music of shattering power. The music is often red in tooth and claw although there are several passages of genuine beauty along the way.
The success of The Sacrifice was ensured in this production thanks to the performances of a very strong cast. MacMillan himself selected Lisa Milne and Christopher Purves to portray the characters of Sian and the General and both repay his confidence with superb assumptions of roles that are vocally and emotionally taxing.
Purves handles magnificently the General’s descent from proud leader/peacemaker and happy father and grandfather to absolute despair and guilt when he realises that his best intentions have collapsed into ruin and brought about deep personal tragedy. His guilt is magnified by the realisation that the clemency he showed towards Evan when he attacked Mal at the end of Act I was totally misplaced and led directly to the event that provides the opera’s dreadful climax. It is only through deceiving Mal into thinking that he is Evan and thereby bringing about his own sacrificial death that the General can atone.
In Act I, at the marriage of Mal and Sian (CD 1, track 12), the General makes a speech, which is ostensibly one of fatherly pride and statesmanlike satisfaction. But even here you sense that the pride and pleasure at his daughter’s wedding are slightly forced. Purves is superbly characterful here and delivers MacMillan’s demanding music with great authority. He’s even better at the conclusion of Act II (CD 2, track 8) in portraying the General’s anguished despair at the turn of events. His singing is riveting and here my listening notes say: “words ripped out of him”. At the terrible dénouement of the piece in Act III (CD 2, track 14) Purves is magnificent in the searing encounter between himself and Mal.
Lisa Milne is no less fine and no less credible. She displays resolution at the very start in breaking off her relationship with Evan (CD 1, tracks 2 and 3). Later, however, she brings the right amount of empathy and care to her relationship with her younger sibling, Megan, described as a woman with the mind of a child (CD 2, track 1). I much admired Miss Milne’s delivery of the lyrical solo in Act I “Within an hour I’ll wear your ring” (CD 1, track 8). Her anger at Mal’s continuing jealousy of Evan at the start of Act II is excellently portrayed (CD 2, track 2). But it’s her participation in the graphic tragedy of Act II that sets the seal on Miss Milne’s performance. Her distress is palpable – even though we can’t see the action on stage – and she sounds almost numb with grief in her solo “I thought my hands were heaven-blessed” (CD 2, track 10). The last line of this solo, sung softly and slowly, is very moving. Sian dominates the closing ensemble – “Evan must see this” (CD 2, track 15) – and Lisa Milne sustains the intensity of her portrayal wonderfully.
The rest of the cast is strong too. As Mal, Peter Hoare portrays a man wracked by jealousy. He can never rid himself of the suspicion – perhaps not entirely unfounded, though his wife remains studiously loyal - that Sian has married him out of duty and that she gave up Evan with regret. This is often a histrionic role and Hoare sings it very strongly. Occasionally he’s either taxed by the tessitura or, perhaps, over-sings a little in his eagerness to give a vivid portrayal. But any such technical flaws are pretty minor and are entirely forgivable in the dramatic context.
At root, Mal is insecure in his position. Why else would he engage in the rather ludicrous ritual of insisting on proposing formally to Sian less than an hour before the wedding takes place? – he explains that up to now she’s only said yes in a letter (CD 1, track 8). Even at the height of his success, at the wedding breakfast, when he proposes a toast to his new bride (CD1, track 13) his manner seems uneasy, a touch forced. Hoare sings this passage with ringing conviction.
Mal’s driven, passionate nature is all too evident in his tense scene with Sian at the beginning of Act II (CD 2, track 2) and Hoare is excellent here. Later in the act Mal is given what is in effect a big set-piece aria, “Seven years ago, to the night” (CD 2, track 7). This is Peter Hoare’s finest moment, I think. His singing is full of ringing assurance, even if once or twice he sounds a little taxed at the top of his register, and he delivers the aria with a strong emotional charge.
The other principal roles are those of Megan, Sian’s younger sister, and Evan. I fully see the point of the character of Megan, as the voice of innocence but I must be honest and say that occasionally I found her music an irritant and a distraction – oddly; Mal feels the same in Act I (CD 1, track 8). I suspect the role works much better when seen on stage but it’s less successful, I feel, in a purely audio context. That is not in any way to criticise the performance of Sarah Tynan, who convincingly suggests an emotionally vulnerable young girl. Evan is an increasingly sinister character and Leigh Melrose brings jealous malevolence to his portrayal in the later stretches of the work. He is decidedly sinister in the solo “Why bring a knife to a wedding?” (CD 1, track 15).
The chorus of WNO are superb. Their music is demanding and the crowd scenes in which they are involved form a crucial part of the drama. I’m sure that all the portrayals on this recording benefit from the immediacy of live performance and this is certainly true of the chorus, who audibly contribute to the action, and not just through their singing.
I said earlier that the orchestra is a major protagonist in the piece. I’m sure this is a hugely complex and demanding score to play but the WNO orchestra acquit themselves handsomely. I’m equally sure that it’s a fascinating score to play. Macmillan conjures up some wonderfully atmospheric sounds in the quieter passages – not least in the tense Prelude – and some absolutely thunderous climaxes. Ideally I’d have liked to hear more space around the orchestra – one has the impression that the main microphones were positioned close to the front of the pit – but on the other hand, the relative closeness of the balance brings its own rewards in terms of immediacy and detail.
I was just a little surprised that MacMillan himself was not on the podium for he conducted the first performance and he has directed most if not all of the previous CDs of his music issued by Chandos (review). However, on this occasion the baton was entrusted to Anthony Negus, a staff conductor with WNO since 1976 with a long and impressive operatic pedigree with WNO and elsewhere. It seems to me that he makes a very fine job of conducting this score. In particular, he maintains the tension throughout and he paces and holds together a very demanding work with complete conviction.
As I’ve indicated, the recorded sound is somewhat close and, arguably, a little confined by the physical space of the theatre. I’m sure, for example, that in a different acoustic a greater sense of mystery and suppressed tension could be conveyed in the Prelude, well though Negus and his orchestra play it. In an ideal world I’d have liked more space around the sound and for the sound to have opened up more, especially at climaxes. Having said that, such a sound could probably only have been achieved under studio conditions and then we would have sacrificed the undoubted electricity of live performance. In any event, I found that my ears soon adjusted and, in fact, the relative closeness of the balance tends to draw in the listener.
It was interesting to make a quick comparison between this recording and that of three orchestral interludes from the opera, included in the Chandos disc of Quickening. The earlier recording – also a live performance – was made in the more spacious acoustic of Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester and it certainly has more space around the orchestra. The sound is very impressive and the composer directs an excellent performance. However, the older recording isn’t an out-and-out winner. There’s much to be said in favour of the newcomer and in particular, in the third of these interludes – the passage leading up to the Investiture scene (CD 2, track 5) - the thwacks of the bass drum are hugely exciting and play a terrifically important role in impelling the music along. You don’t get the same effect in MacMillan’s own account, strangely.
Naturally, as it’s a live performance, there’s a fair degree of stage noise but I don’t think this is a drawback – once again it adds to the immediacy of the occasion. A little applause has been retained after each act but thankfully the audience allowed a decent gap between the end of the music and their appreciation. However, even when I listened through headphones I didn’t otherwise find the presence of an audience to be a distraction.
At the end of his review of the première Bill Kenny asked the very reasonable question whether The Sacrifice will last or not. In listening to these discs my task has been infinitely easier than Bill’s. He had to assimilate the music and the production, and all at one hearing, whereas I’ve been able to focus exclusively on the music and, above all, have had not only the luxury of repeated hearings but also of being able to dip into certain sections. With the benefit of this greater familiarity, I think I can safely say that The Sacrifice will last. The music is magnificently powerful and often searingly dramatic; the chief characters are convincingly drawn; and the plot – and the message behind it – is intense, dramatic and relevant to our times.
I have found listening to The Sacrifice an enthralling, sometimes draining and always compelling experience. It seems to me that James MacMillan has written yet another vividly communicative and hugely convincing piece. This intense performance, which brims with conviction, must be regarded as definitive and Chandos are to be warmly congratulated on making it available. Anyone interested in contemporary opera should investigate it without delay.

John Quinn
An enthralling, sometimes draining and always compelling experience. ... see Full Review