ROH2 – Clemency

Macmillan
Clemency – Chamber opera to a libretto by Michael Symmons Roberts [Co-commissioned by ROH2 with Scottish Opera, Britten Sinfonia and Boston Lyric Opera: world premiere]

Sarah – Janis Kelly
Abraham – Grant Doyle
Triplets – Adam Green, Eamonn Mulhall & Andrew Tortise

Britten Sinfonia
Clark Rundell

Katie Mitchell – Director
Alex Eales – Designs
John Bright – Costume designs
Jon Clark – Lighting


Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 7 May, 2011
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

With the same sort of Christian provenance that generated “Parthenogenesis” (centred round an unnatural/miraculous birth), James MacMillan and his librettist Michael Symmons Roberts have turned to another miraculous delivery in their chamber opera “Clemency”. The story comes from the book of Genesis (chapter 18) in which three angels (referred to as Triplets in the cast list) tell the elderly (post-menopausal) Sarah, wife of the patriarch Abraham, that she will give birth to a son (Isaac) – the key event in the establishment of the tribes of Israel. It’s a long-distance Annunciation, which can be interpreted as an anticipation of the birth of Christ. The legend – a remarkable piece of writing – doesn’t stop there, though. The three angels have also been sent to sort out the “twin towns” of sin, Sodom and Gomorrah, and there is a strange, shaggy-dog-style passage in which Abraham tries to strike a bargain to spare those good, blameless townsfolk, however few of them there are – an early precedent of human intercession with a vengeful Almighty. In a contemporary twist, the three angels are messengers of retribution who refer to the “twin towns” of depravation in a similar way as terrorists referred to the “twin towers” of a corrupt city, to be punished with annihilation. Miraculous birth, pleas for mercy and terrorist angels hell-bent on jihad – a tall order for an opera that lasts about 50 minutes, the first five of which were played in total silence, supposedly establishing the quiet ease of Abraham and Sarah’s marriage but rather raising anxieties about a possible technical fault.

Katie Mitchell’s production is contemporary miserabilist – gritty, you might call it; Alex Eales’s set was like a hinged altar triptych, so that whatever was going on in each frame was presented as a picture, and dignified with a timeless quality.On the evidence of “Parthenogenesis”, MacMillan and Roberts are very good at folding in any numbers of layers into their work and letting them find their own resonance. In “Clemency”, though, much of the libretto was lost in the singing – Abraham had a long opening solo, supposedly in made-up Aramaic, and apparently there were other passages in cod-Latin , but much of it could have been in double-Dutch for all you could make out the words. MacMillan has scored it for string orchestra, and that sound comes packed with particularly English, pastoral associations. Apart from some obviously Arabian Nights-style emblematic inflections, the music had the powerful flavour of Vaughan Williams or Tippett in assertively mystic/ecstatic mode. MacMillan is a fine writer for voices and a vivid reactor to words and images, but I have still to discern an unmistakable style.

Grant Doyle was a powerful vocal and stage presence, and breezed through the demands the music made of him. Janis Kelly was a formidable Sarah (as indeed Sarah is in the Bible – she was quite a matriarchal handful) and delivered a sympathetic and dramatic performance. The two-tenors, one-baritone trio of angels were vividly realised and chillingly evoked the power of blind faith. Clark Rundell conducted with a feel for the score’s immediacy, and there are some fine players in the Britten Sinfonia.



  • Further performances at 7.45 p.m. until Saturday 14 May [no performances on 10 & 13]
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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