The gates of a great triptych stand open, but no painted icons lie within. Instead, each panel contains a fragment of a house: one shows part of a kitchen, the others a bare living room seen from two different perspectives. It is modern but dilapidated. The branch of a tree has shattered the window and grown indoors, a reminder of the permanence of nature in a transient human world. For James McMillan’s new operatic treatment of an Old Testament tale, these designs by Alex Eales provide a striking collision of ancient and modern - an early promise that is not fulfilled by the opera itself despite the presence of five excellent soloists and the commanding advocacy of Clark Rundell and the Britten Sinfonia strings.
Chapter 18 of the Book of Genesis relates a slender fable in
which Abraham and his wife, Sarah, are visted by three angels to whom they
offer hospitality, and who in turn foretell that within a year Sarah will have
a child. The angels prepare to leave, letting slip that they are on their way
to trash the nearby towns of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham persuades the
celestial trio to spare them if they can find ten good people living there.
I do hope it’s by accident, not design, that the libretto by
Michael Symmons Roberts refers to Sodom and Gomorrah not by name but as ‘the
twin towns’, and that careless diction alone causes the word ‘towns’ to sound so
much like ‘towers’; but since the opera recasts the story in an amorphous
modern setting (we could be anywhere from Latvia to Libya) I fear the glib
worst. If Clemency has a moral message it is a confusing one:
the three angels are depicted as migrant black-economy workers who morph into
gun-hungry gangsters out for mayhem, yet good old Abraham softens their hearts
with the most childlike of reasoning.
McMillan has scored his opera for strings alone, and it is a
disappointment. One does not anticipate pastiche from a composer who, twenty
years ago, showed such originality in works like The Confession of
Isobel Gowdie and the stunning Seven Last Words from the Cross,
yet for stretches here the string writing is an uneasy mishmash of Klezmer,
Vaughan Williams and rehashed McMillan. True, some of the innovative string
effects are ear-popping, as is often the way with this technically prodigious
composer, but on first hearing at least the musical value of
Clemency appears uncharacteristically slight.
Grant Doyle’s Abraham has vocal clarity and physical
composure, and Janis Kelly brings a careworn dignity to the under-written role
of his wife, Sarah. The three angels (‘Triplets’) are very well played by Adam
Green, Eamonn Mulhall and Andrew Tortise as a closely harmonised trio whose
music recalls Britten’s Canticle IV, The Journey of the
As a theatre director, Katie Mitchell is unsurpassed in the
psychological acuity of her characterisation; but although she brings her
customary skill to staging this 45-minute piece, she never quite probes to its
heart. Perhaps it doesn’t have one.