Wednesday, 5 November 2014

This live Boston Lyric Opera recording of James MacMillan’s chamber opera, Clemency on a new release from BIS shows it to be a superb work, always gripping, often uncomfortable

It is good to be able to welcome the World Premiere recording of James MacMillan’s (b.1959) chamber opera Clemency first performed in 2011 at the Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London, England.

This new release from BIS Records is a live recording from staged performances given on 6th, 7th and 13th February 2013 at Artists for Humanity EpiCentre, Boston, USA by Boston Lyric Opera conducted by David Angus with David Kravitz (baritone) in the role of Abraham, Michelle Trainor (soprano) as Hagar and Christine Abraham (soprano)  as Sarah with David McFerrin (baritone) , Neal Ferreira (tenor) and Samuel Levine (tenor) as the Three Travellers.
BIS - 2129

Clemency was written in 2009-10 for five singers and string orchestra to a libretto by Michael Symmons Roberts. It is in five scenes and lasts for around 42 minutes. Though set in the present day, Clemency takes its theme from the Biblical story, in the Book of Genesis, of Abraham and Sarah who are visited by Three Travellers who represent the divine presence on earth yet, due to their unpredictability leave Abraham and Sarah wondering whether they were angels of mercy or vengeance.
For Boston Lyric Opera’s production, the opera’s North American premiere, due to the relatively short duration of the work, it was decided to pair it with Franz Schubert’s Hagar’s Lament, prefacing it with a shortened version of the chant from the opening of the opera. Hagar’s Lament or Hagar’s Klage, D.5, Schubert’s very first song, takes an original German text by Clemens August Schüking, here sung in English.

We open with Introduction: Abraham’s Chant a striking vocal chant from baritone David Kravitz, before the orchestra enters for Hagar’s Lament. Soprano Michelle Trainor as Hagar, a traveller sings ‘Here on a hill of burning sand I sit, and just across from me lies my dying child’. She is soon joined by the piano of Brett Hodgdon  in this most appropriate of Schubert songs, with Trainor in fine voice, full of passion and emotion, with beautifully clear diction and moving from fierce emotion to a sudden lighter Schubertian vein with consummate ease. David McFerrin as one of the travellers has three short lines including the poignant ‘May blessing be upon the head of this child’ before the orchestra enters as Hagar cries, ‘Jehova, Jehova, Jehova, cast your gaze on us.’ The piano continues alone accompanying before another brief orchestral passage when Hagar sings, ‘But alas, what did the child do to deserve so much suffering’, concluding on an orchestral passage and running neatly into the start of the opera with Scene 1 (Sarah, Abraham)

Scene 1 opens with a fuller version Abraham’s Chant, a fine link to bind the whole production together. Again David Kravitz is superb bringing a Jewish inflection before rising into the text ‘O Lord, who set the planets turn…I serve until you call me home.’

This leads to a Duet: ‘What is the measure of our years’ where the orchestra joins in some of MacMillan’s distinctive and most appealing writing. Abraham is joined by soprano, Christine Abraham as Sarah as they weave this lovely duet of great depth and given a deep orchestral accompaniment.

In Scene 2 (Sarah, Abraham, Travellers) Abraham greets the three mysterious Travellers singing ‘No-one can walk far in this heat, Rest here until the cool night’, Kravitz showing his fine range and flexibility. A dramatic orchestral passage leads to a striking line for the three Travellers indicating the strange nature of the figures. There is some really fine orchestral writing full of drama and emotion as Abraham makes his welcome. A slightly subdued three Travellers; baritone, David McFerrin  tenors Neal Ferreira and Samuel Levine announce a child for Sarah who laughs and sings over them ‘My skin is lined, my spine is racked, no child could feed from these old sacks.’ There is some very fine singing from all three of the Travellers before Abraham asks ‘Who are you Sirs? To speak for God?’

An orchestral passage, full of Eastern flavour, leads to the Travellers in their ‘Reverie’ as they sing ‘Gold has lost its light’ seemingly predicting the future suffering of the Jewish people. This is a tremendous performance from McFerrin, Ferreira and Levine with the orchestra adding to the increasing passion and drama. How MacMillan weaves his orchestral forces around the singers is brilliantly done, rising to a tremendous pitch on the words ‘Once-tender mothers have boiled their own sons and eaten their flesh’ before a hushed ‘This is the ruin of our people.’ The orchestra leads off dramatically, swirling around and leading to another fine passage as the Travellers utter chant like phrases slowly descending in power as Abraham and Sarah join in a beautiful duet ‘Who are these angels?’ only to be quickly overridden by the Travellers.

However, Abraham and Sarah again sing the duet accompanied by a lovely solo violin theme. The Travellers again chant, building in power against an increasingly agitated orchestra in a tremendous section. Before the end of the scene Abraham and Sarah become more agitated in the singing of ‘Where have they come from’.

The strings of the Boston Lyric Opera orchestra continue with their agitated theme, often pounding out phrases where Sarah, sings the dramatic ‘Three strangers bring a gift to me…Where time was lost, Believe, I live…’. Hovering between excitement and manic drama, the orchestra drives on with Christine Abraham achieving some very fine high notes. The music quietens as we are led into Scene 3 (Sarah, Abraham, Travellers, Hagar).

Abraham asks quietly and tensely, ‘Who are you?’ They make no satisfactory reply, saying,’ Goodbye. Now we have work to do.’ Abraham, with increasing concern, asks ‘Dressed and armed like that? What for?’ As the Travellers tell of terrible deeds that will occur, Michelle Trainor as Hagar, sings ‘This is terrible’. A fretful Sarah sings ‘No answer, no answer, no answer, Sirs?’ to which the Travellers, picking up their bags to leave sing, ‘‘Your tree is beautiful, its shade, A pool for thirst.’

As we are taken into Scene 4 (Sarah, Abraham, Travellers) Sarah runs in front of the Travellers as they try to leave. The Travellers sing, ‘We cannot discuss our plans…’ Sarah tells them,’ But now you talk like murderers!’ A scurrying orchestra accompanies the questions that Abraham and Sarah put to the Travellers concerning how many acts of selflessness would save the towns, rising in drama and desperation with fine singing and a terrific melodic string passage that leads into Scene 5 (Sarah)

This scene gives us Sarah’s lament: ‘Months from now, with a babe in my arms…I will sing, among the leaves, new songs of gratitude and terror, rescue and loss…’ a lovely, beautiful but intense aria, brilliantly sung, revealing  Christine Abraham’s lovely rich lower range as well as her superb upper range.

Though I still have my doubts about the inclusion of Schubert’s song, the MacMillan opera is superb, always gripping, often uncomfortable. The sound is not always sympathetic to the voice and piano alone but, otherwise, this is a very clear and fine recording of a live performance. There is some stage noise as would be expected.

There are excellent booklet notes and full English texts.

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