Clemency, Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, May 2011

In Genesis Chapter 18 three unknown men visit Abraham. He welcomes them warmly and gives them food. In return they tell him that his wife Sarah will have a child, though “it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women”. She laughs, but the Lord promises to return a year hence when she will have a son. The men then rise up to go and destroy the twin cities, but Abraham negotiates — not an easy task when you’re dealing with omnipotence. He asks for clemency if there be but fifty righteous within Sodom, and the Lord agrees. Then Abraham reduces the number to forty-five, then forty, thirty, twenty, ten, and always the Lord agrees to relent. In the end, however, we move to Chapter 19, and Sodom is destroyed.

Grant Doyle as Abraham, all photos Stephen Cummiskey

This opera by James Macmillan deals just with Chapter 18, powerful and riveting stuff. Here is the Sumerian god Enlil, angry and willing to destroy as he did in the flood story, though in that ancient Sumerian tale the wise god Enki contrives to preserve life, by advising one man to build an ark. In the Biblical narrative, however, there is only one God, embodying multiple natures, and Genesis 18 is fascinating in the role Abraham plays, almost as if he were Enki, whose Sumerian name means earth lord. Of course Abraham is not a god, though he does later become lord of many flocks and a great household.

Doyle with Janis Kelly as Sarah

In this opera, however, Abraham and Sarah still live very simply, and the beginning was entirely silent, the only sound coming from the running water that Sarah is using to wash vegetables and prepare dinner. Eventually Abraham sings unaccompanied as if chanting a prayer, and at the end of his chanting the orchestra enters. Gradually the opera picks up momentum, and the three men enter. It might seem from this slow start that we are being prepared for a long evening, yet the whole thing lasts less than an hour, and Macmillan’s harmonious music creates a strong impression. This is a composer who has the ability to remain quiet and subdued but yet bring forth the full weight of the orchestra when it suits him.

His new work Clemency is one I would be very happy to revisit, but it’s not easy to catch the words as they are sung, so I recommend getting there early enough to read through the short libretto by Michael Symmons Roberts, which is included with the programme. It’s also worth reading Genesis 18 before you go. As many people will know, this is the 400th anniversary of the Authorised King James translation of the Bible, hence the Biblical topic, and it’s an excellent one to choose.

The music was beautifully played by the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Clark Rundell, and Grant Doyle and Janis Kelly sang strongly as Abraham and Sarah, as did Adam Green, Eamonn Mulhall and Andrew Tortise as the three men. The set design by Alex Eales is a triptych with Sarah’s kitchen in the left frame, and the three visitors appear only in the centre, reflecting the three-in-oneness of this story. The strangers are three, yet they act as one, and in the Biblical narrative it is sometimes God who speaks.

Performances of this ROH2 co-production with Scottish Opera continue at Covent Garden until May 14  — for more details click here.

Leave a Comment