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Remarkably Paradoxical

ROBERT HUGILL experiences
James MacMillan's opera 'The Sacrifice'
at Welsh National Opera


James MacMillan's new opera The Sacrifice is a remarkably paradoxical work. A profoundly violent story, depicted in music of sometimes aching tenderness; a very noisy score which was written in such a way that we could hear (and understand) nearly every word of Michael Symons Roberts' libretto.

The opera has been ten years in the making, commissioned by WNO and premièred by them at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff (heard Saturday 6 October 2007). The composer conducted the première and second performance, but problems with delayed/cancelled flights meant that on Saturday 6 October, MacMillan was marooned elsewhere and assistant conductor Anthony Negus stepped magnificently into the breach.

Composer, librettist and producer Katie Mitchell, undertook an extensive work-shopping process which helped shape the opera. The plot is presented almost filmically, the characters are never given moments of introspection, no non-naturalistic soliloquies. Instead MacMillan uses the orchestra to fill in the back story, comment and to clarify. It is the orchestra which provides the element of dissonant rawness, the vocal parts are almost all grateful, viable and often melodic -- quite a novelty in contemporary opera.

There has been some comment on how MacMillan includes folk-like elements into his score, for me these set pieces (songs and a set of reels for the wedding) are less significant than the way his vocal lines uses the same expressive Scottish-isms (for want of a better word) that appear in his other vocal and choral music. For the more melancholic sections, I felt that the pibroch was never far away.

That is not to say that the piece sounds consciously Scottish -- Macmillan is too well integrated a composer for that. He simply uses all the elements in his armoury. Another weapon was the choral set pieces -- this is the first of MacMillan's large scale works which for me evoked his profoundly moving choral music (eg The Mass and the anthem Tremunt videnes Angeli). This was most notable in the wonderful threnody at the end of Act 3.

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Copyright © 11 October 2007 Robert Hugill, London UK


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