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James MacMillan: reviews of Clemency at Royal Opera

(September 2011)

James MacMillan's Clemency, his new one-act opera, was staged by Katie Mitchell at The Royal Opera's Linbury Studio Theatre in May and will travel to Scotland and Boston.

James MacMillan’s new one-act chamber opera Clemency was premiered at The Royal Opera’s Linbury Studio Theatre in London in May, attracting excellent reviews. The Observer praised it as “the best MacMillan score I’ve heard… as densely coloured and detailed as the Russian Orthodox icon which in part prompted it. Its starting point is the Old Testament story of Sarah and Abraham before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. One can imagine that MacMillan and his librettist, Michael Symmons Roberts, wrote in a white heat of intensity.”

Clemency saw composer and librettist reunited with director Katie Mitchell for their third operatic collaboration, following The Sacrifice and Parthenogenesis. The staging revealed an iconic triptych, in which the third panel is a mirror image of the second, allowing us to witness dialogues from both sides, crucially Abraham’s pleas to the avenging travellers for forgiveness. Following its London premiere, Clemency is staged by Scottish Opera next August and receives its US premiere from Boston Lyric Opera in February 2013.

 “…in James MacMillan’s music, every note counts. And never more so than in Clemency, which packs questions powerful, emotional, philosophical and religious into just 45 minutes… MacMillan has created a terrifically intense, focused and inspired musical work on a thought-provoking parable, updated to the present day.”
The Independent

Clemency introduces the most complex of subjects in the most direct musical language… The branches of an oak tree reach through a broken window into the room where Abraham offers food and shelter to three travellers. They enter as workmen and leave as assassins, an otherworldly dazzle of righteous triads in rhythmic unison… Abraham’s pleas for mercy are ignored, leaving Sarah to contemplate motherhood with ‘gratitude and terror’, as well she might, given this baby’s future role as putative sacrifice.”
Independent on Sunday

Clemency’s economical treatment of a slice of scripture, its casting for just five voices, four of them male, and its quasi-ritualistic manner of proceeding evoke the Britten of the church parables. MacMillan’s restlessly inventive string-writing – biting, resonant, athletic, but with an expressionistic edge – sounded terrific.”
Sunday Times

“Subtly haunting and quietly powerful…the idiom harmonically is intense, the mood bleak, solemn and impassioned, often evoking threnodic Orthodox chant. This is an opera which leaves a lasting effect, and I want to hear it again soon.
Daily Telegraph

MacMillan’s current commissions include festive settings of the Gloria (to mark the 50th anniversary in 2012 of the consecration of Coventry Cathedral) and Credo, a full-evening chamber oratorio and a large-scale orchestral work. Forthcoming new recordings include choral releases from Cappella Nova on Linn and The Sixteen on Coro.


> Further information on Work: Clemency

Photo: The Royal Opera/Stephen Cummiskey

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