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.

ahisgett - Flickr
Show Hide image

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis