From Juliet Williams : Following last week's premiere of his new concert piece Since it was the Day of Preparation (review HERE) the Edinburgh Festival continues its tribute to national composer James MacMillan with the Scottish premiere (as mentioned in Robert Hugill's review) of his short opera Clemency, which opened at the Royal Opera House last May. Like last week's performance, this work takes a religious theme, but here from the Old Testament rather than the New – the story of Abraham and Sarah being told that despite their advanced years, Sarah – previously childless – would bear a son.
Set in the present day, staged in a humble dwelling which could be in any Mediterranean or near eastern country, Abraham is initially seen as a humble figure; a regular guy. Mysterious visitors, looking like intinerant building workers, arrive and are made welcome according to the Jewish custom; they go on to announce that, 'One year from now we will return and Sarah will have borne a son'. A parallel with Since it was the day of preparation is the encounter with the divine, initially unrecognised, in a guise of the most ordinary folk, followed by a realisation which transforms.
The title, seemingly unrelated to this better-known scene, refers to the visitors' mission, which turns out to be one of vengeance. In a scene which may be more familiar to Jewish than to Christian listeners, Abraham pleads for mercy asking if, 'For fifty good deeds, the inhabitants of two towns would be spared?' In a scene which is the dramatic climax of the work, he then goes on to try to drive a better bargain on behalf of apparently unknown citizens, driving down the terms for the number of selfless acts or good deeds from fifty to 'five good men and true'.
Christian listeners may see a foreshadowing of Christ as advocate in the forefather Abraham taking that role. Just as Sarah's persona is transformed by the at first improbable news of her approaching pregnancy, Abraham undergoes a personal transformation from the everyday figure of the opening scene to take the courageous and surprising step of challenging the divine messengers; not once but repeatedly. Just as Abraham demonstrates the virtuous quality of hospitality, in arguing for that of mercy, the mantle of divine attributes seems to shift to him.
The final scene contrasts the spontaneous 'mercy' shown to Sarah and her husband contrasting with the seemingly harsh lack of the same meted out despite Abraham's intercessions on behalf of those living nearby. She sings:
“Months from now, with a babe in my arms,
Under these terebinths, on the cool grass,
I will sing, among the leaves, new songs
Of gratitude and terror, rescue and loss.
Will my newborn son see, as he blinks at the sky,
The thumbprints of smoke from a valley on fire?”
This is a short but intense and powerful work, and is well worth seeing. Its religious context contains emotions of universal human relevance. A further performance in Edinburgh is tomorrow (Sat 1st September) but it is repeated next weekend in Glasgow – details and booking on Scottish Opera's own website. American readers may be interested to know that there are plans for a future tour of this work to Boston.
Cast : Janis Kelly (Sarah) Grant Doyle (Abraham) Christopher Diffey Adam Green, Eamonn Mulhall, The Orchestra of Scottish Opera Derek Clark (conductor)