Fleeting visions

James MacMillan's latest chamber opera is difficult to pin down.

Our English word "guest" derives from the Greek "xenos". It's a word whose historical and etymological tensions are hidden in its interchangeable meanings of guest, host and stranger. It is the friction inherent to this idea of hospitality, of the unstable relationship of power, otherness and duty between host and guest, that animates James MacMillan's latest chamber opera Clemency.

Following where 2000's Parthenogenesis led, Clemency is strongly informed by the composer's Roman Catholic faith, an affiliation shared with Michael Symmons Roberts, librettist for both works. Taking that most inscrutable of Genesis stories, The Hospitality of Abraham (most familiar from Andrei Rublev's fifteenth-century icon of the same name), as its root, MacMillan cultivates the tale into a contemporary social fable. Complicating the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah through their pointed rechristening as the "twin towns", Macmillan's oblique parable stretches beyond morality into the realm of contemporary politics.

Scored for five singers and string orchestra, Clemency's brisk 50 minutes chart the intrusion of three strangers into the quiet domesticity of the aged Abraham and Sarah. Welcomed and fed, the strangers foretell that when they return in a year Sarah will have had a son, and the couple recognise them as angels. Learning of their plans to destroy neighbouring towns, Abraham pleads with them for mercy, eventually extracting a promise that if just five good men are found the towns will be spared.

Framing the action within a gilt-edged triptych, Alex Eales' set anchors the opera in the symbolic, two-dimensional world of religious iconography. This flattened perspective (mirrored physically in some clever spatial use of the three panelled stage sections) chafes fruitfully against the detailed naturalism of the sets and Katie Mitchell's direction, giving weight to their grubby contemporary banality.

While MacMillan is perhaps best-known for his Celtic-inflected choral works, his operatic writing has proved itself altogether tougher and more flexible. After the lyric abrasions of Parthenogenesis it was hard to be satisfied with Clemency's uneasy mix of pastiche Eastern Orthodoxy (with MacMillan's signature Lombardic ornaments reinvented as Klezmer-style embellishments) and sub-Vaughan Williams string effects.

The same mewling violin cries that pleaded so eloquently in the opening of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie here lost any emotional referent, and while much of the string writing had a muscular brilliance about it, its coherence was lost in the Babel of harmonic languages. Quite literally out of tune with their earthly surroundings, the music of the Triplets (strongly sung by Adam Green, Eamonn Mulhall, Andrew Tortise) established its own modal sound-world, the three-voices-in-one presenting a striking musical Trinity. Only the occasional unisons were marred by the challenge of blending three such different vocal tones.

Grant Doyle led the cast as Abraham in a beautifully-judged piece of singing that brought authority without bombast to some of MacMillan's loveliest writing. The delicacy of his performance was matched by Janis Kelly's life-worn Sarah, whose quiet presence only fully surrendered to song in the rather ambiguous ending.

Having the strings of the Britten Sinfonia (efficiently conducted by Clark Rundell) as orchestra was a piece of luxury casting by no means fully exploited by the deeply sunken pit. Given the Linbury's almost endlessly flexible setup, perhaps a more prominent position could usefully have been found for them, mirroring the instrumental prominence MacMillan's music demands and achieving more direct interplay with the singers.

While MacMillan's orchestral and choral works establish a sound-world on their own terms, giving the composer one of the most recognisable voices of contemporary British music, this has not always been true of his operas. Caught up in the moment-to-moment reflection of the libretto's images, he can forget to ground the music in a self-sufficient framework or language, leaving it curiously vulnerable and elusive. With Symmons Roberts' inscrutable text our sole concordance here, MacMillan's biblical vision failed to make itself understood, barring us from interpretation even as the spread wings of the triptych invited us in.

Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London, until 14 May

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred