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

Photo: Getty
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Commons Confidential: Jeremy in Jerusalem

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

Theresa May didn’t know if she was coming or going even before her reckless election gamble and the Grenfell Tower disaster nudged her towards a Downing Street exit. Between the mock-Gothic old parliament and the modern Portcullis House is a subterranean passageway with two sets of glass swing doors.

From whichever direction MPs approach, the way ahead is on the left and marked “Pull”, and the set on the right displays a “No Entry” sign. My snout recalls that May, before she was Prime Minister, invariably veered right, ignoring the warning and pushing against the crowd. Happier days. Now Tanking Theresa risks spinning out of No 10’s revolving door.

May is fond of wrapping herself in the Union flag, yet it was Jeremy Corbyn who came close to singing “Jerusalem” during the election. I gather his chief spinner, Seumas Milne, proposed William Blake’s patriotic call to arms for a campaign video. Because of its English-centred lyrics and copyright issues, they ended up playing Lily Allen’s “Somewhere Only We Know” instead over footage of Jezza meeting people, in a successful mini-movie inspired by Bernie Sanders’s “America” advert.

Corbyn’s feet walking upon England’s mountains green when the Tories have considered Jerusalem theirs since ancient times would be like Mantovani May talking grime with Stormzy.

The boot is on the other foot among MPs back at Westminster. Labour’s youthful Wes Streeting is vowing to try to topple Iain Duncan Smith in Chingford and Woodford Green at the next election, after the Tory old trooper marched into Ilford North again and again at the last one. Streeting’s marginal is suddenly a 9,639-majority safe seat and IDS’s former Tory bastion a 2,438-majority marginal. This east London grudge match has potential.

The Conservatives are taking steps to reverse Labour’s youth surge. “That is the last election we go to the polls when universities are sitting,” a cabinet minister snarled. The subtext is that the next Tory manifesto won’t match Corbyn’s pledge to scrap tuition fees.

Nice touch of the Tory snarler Karl McCartney to give Strangers’ Bar staff a box of chocolates after losing Lincoln to the Labour red nurse Karen Lee. Putting on a brave face, he chose Celebrations. Politics is no Picnic and the Wispa is that McCartney didn’t wish to Fudge defeat by describing it as a Time Out.

Police hats off to the Met commissioner, Cressida Dick, who broke ranks with her predecessors by meeting the bobbies guarding parliament and not just their commanders. Coppers addressing Dick as “ma’am” were asked to call her “Cress”, a moniker she has invited MPs to use. All very John Bercow-style informality.

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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