Clemency :: Boston Lyric Opera

by Ed Tapper

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday February 10, 2013

Boston Lyric Opera is launching its annual Opera Annex production, a contemporary musical-theater work performed at some unusual venue outside of Boston's theatre district. This season, the locale of choice is the Artists for Humanity EpiCenter in South Boston. The basement loft space proves a wonderfully intimate setting for such a project. BLO's current production ihas added a performance on Monday, Febuary 11. (For more information visit the BLO website.)

The featured work is a brief, one-act opera by the contemporary Scottish composer, James Macmillan. "Clemency" was composed in 2011, and is making its American debut at these BLO concerts. It is based on an ambiguous incident from Genesis in which Abraham and Sarah are visited by three travelers. The couple presume they are angels when the trio prophesize that a child will be born to them, in spite of their advanced age. It soon becomes apparent that the Angels have been sent to earth to destroy evil wherever it is harbored. Abraham and his wife plead for mercy, in an attempt to protect their people.

The work is tonal, but harmonically dissonant, the music often bearing stylistic resemblances to that of composers like Bernstein, Bloch and Bartok. There are some striking sonorities, however, as a stage work, "Clemency" is too static. The lack of any real action was alleviated somewhat by the creative stage direction, which took full advantage of the unique performing space. The set was appropriately abstract and artfully conceived,

The young band of singers performed the work with tonal security and great enthusiasm. BLO regular David Kravitz sang the part of Abraham, and his basso has never sounded as full and opulent. As his doubting wife Sarah, Christine Abraham was also excellent, and courageously negotiated the brutally high tessitura of the role. The voices of "Angels" David McFerrin, Neal Ferreira and Samuel Levine blended nicely, and the three singers did justice to the often complex ensemble singing.

The evening turned out to be something of a double bill, as "Clemency" was preceded by a rarely heard vocal work by Schubert, "Hagars Klage." The 17 minute song is a dramatic solo cantata of sorts, and, as it concerns a thematically related biblical event, was performed as a prelude to the opera. The lament was sung in a new orchestration and English translation by the talented BLO Music Director, David Angus, who led both the Schubert and the MacMillan works with authority. "Hagar's Lament" was staged, and featured Michelle Trainor as soloist. The dramatic soprano has an impressively scaled voice, a bit large for the relatively small performing space.

She intoned the long lines of dramatic recitative with style and nobility.

Once again, BLO's Opera Annex is providing Boston audiences with an opportunity to hear more avant-garde operatic works in an informal setting. And, if contemporary opera is not to your liking, the Schubert piece is certainly worth a listen.