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James MacMILLAN (b.1959)
Clemency - A chamber opera in one act for five singers and string orchestra (2009-10) [44:41]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Hagar’s Lament D5 (arr. D. Angus for voices, piano and orchestra) (sung in English) [14:37]
Abraham - David Kravitz (baritone)
Hagar - Michelle Trainor (soprano)
Sarah - Christine Abraham (soprano)
Three Travellers - David McFerrin (baritone); Neal Ferreira (tenor); Samuel Levine (tenor)
Brett Hodgdon (piano) (Schubert)
Members of Boston Lyric Opera (Schubert)
Boston Lyric Opera Orchestra/David Angus
rec. live, Artists for Humanity EpiCentre, Boston, 6-7, 13 February 2013
BIS BIS2129 [59.18]

The first thing you hear when you put this CD on is a Jewish-type chant sung by a bass-baritone in the role of Abraham. You will hear this again at the start of the opera proper after the lengthy setting by Schubert of Hagar Klage or ‘Hagar’s Lament’. This is clearly a highly unusual and unique beginning to any piece of music let alone an opera. So what’s going on?

I sometimes wonder if James Macmillan is not now too prolific. True, he still has, or is involved with, very new and original concepts. However the music he is producing lacks the impact of his earlier works. He seems, sometimes, to look for sensationalism often based around controversial religious subjects, which can be interpreted in a political manner, ‘relevant’ for our own times. So here we have an old biblical story, filtered through a Schubert song but with a message of the pain caused by the division between Judaism and Islam as seen through contemporary creative eyes.

We are dealing then with a moving story found in the Old Testament’s Book of Genesis. Sarah and Abraham are visited by three so called ‘Travellers’, who are really somewhat dubious angels. They announce a forthcoming birth to the couple despite the fact that Sarah, who when told laughs at them, is beyond childbearing age. That birth is said eventually to have produced the present Middle East conflicts. Elucidating further, and before the opera starts, we have Schubert’s fifteen-minute ballad Hagars Klage (text: Clement August Schückling) which concerns the banishment of Abraham’s second wife Hagar and their son Ishmael.

This song is really second rate early Schubert and I can’t see what it adds to the operatic concept as a whole except turning it from a forty-five minute experience to a sixty minute one. As I mentioned above, the chants are on either side of the song and there are later some quite dramatic instrumental interludes — the best moments of the piece I feel — based on these chants, scored for strings.

The libretto by Michael Symmons Roberts is well paced and offers MacMillan space to explore the two main characters. That said, it’s the three travellers who musically attract the greater attention. They basically sing homophonically with some stratospherically high writing, somewhat unrelenting at times, for Neal Ferreira and Samuel Levine, but generally convincingly negotiated. The effect is somewhat Byzantine and although both David Kravitz and Michelle Trainor do the best they can with the principal parts, MacMillan is less sympathetic with their melodic lines and characterisation.

Another issue is that the recording is not always well balanced and the sound, especially early on, is below the standards we have come to expect from Bis. We must assume that they took the best bits from the three listed days' performances. It is a live recording and various ‘noises off’ are to be expected. In addition the orchestra which consists entirely of strings seem to be struggling and under-prepared on too many occasions.

I understand that Clemency is the third operatic collaboration between MacMillan and Roberts. It was commissioned by Boston Lyric Opera together with the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Scottish Opera and the Britten Sinfonia.

Sadly, I can’t endorse this work. Even if another ensemble were to take it up I‘m not at all sure if the overall impression conveyed here can ever be fully redeemed.

Gary Higginson