In James MacMillan’s Clemency, three strangers visit Abraham and Sarah. The aging couple make them welcome and receive the news that Sarah will bear a son – to Sarah’s disbelief. They appear to be angels, coming to bless the couple. But as the travelers prepare to leave, they reveal that their next stop is one of condemnation. The people of the twin towns, Sodom and Gomorrah, will be destroyed. Abraham begs for clemency, negotiating salvation if the travelers find good souls among the sinners.

David Kravitz, Christine Abraham Michelle Trainor © Eric Antoniou
David Kravitz, Christine Abraham Michelle Trainor
© Eric Antoniou

Clemency is having its North American première performances at Boston Lyric Opera, as this year’s Annex production. Besides the opportunity to see new or lesser-known operas, one of the best parts of seeing Annex productions is getting to visit different venues in the city – most of which are off the beaten path. Artists for Humanity EpiCenter in South Boston is this year’s Annex, providing a large, warehouse-like space for the new opera. The new production is perfect for the venue, with sets by Julia Noulin-Mérat, costumes by Nancy Leary, and lighting by Carl Wiemann.

The metal walls of the center’s gallery were dampened in white tarps and sheets of grey felt. In the center of the room was a raised wooden stage, with reclaimed wood suspended over it like a stop-action explosion – or the bough of a tree. That is the nature of Clemency. It’s the balance between the Tree of Life and an explosion. The travelers arrive as prophetic angels bringing word of new life, and leave as vengeful messengers of destruction.

The audience was seated in four sections, surrounding the stage. In the corners, between the sections of seating, additional staging held three vignettes: a child’s bed with a few wooden toys; two rocking chairs with a rabbit-ear topped television; a simple kitchen table where Sarah stood shelling peas. Supernumeraries inhabited these side stages, portraying Sarah and Abraham as the story unfolded, adding dimension to their characters and filling out the history. The action wove through the audience with layers of storytelling.

The story illumines moments from along the biblical timeline, adding scenes to explain or deepen the meaning. Jumps in chronology are clarified through Biblical passages, projected along with the surround titles. The libretto, by poet Michael Symmons Roberts, is drawn from the book of Genesis.

MacMillan’s score was often reminiscent of classical religious chant, but was not bound by a specific genre or tradition. The music was part of the storytelling mechanism, as in the strings’ glissando accompanying the travelers singing “and not one shall be spared”, almost prayerfully. Clemency leaves one questioning the nature of mercy in the human versus the divine. This was portrayed beautifully by soprano Christine Abraham as she sang of her joy of the life growing within her, mixed with the horror of what was to come. Baritone David Kravitz filled the room as Abraham – a character both larger-than-life and supremely human. The three travelers were David McFerrin (baritone), Neal Ferreira (tenor) and Samuel Levine (tenor), all of whom gave the combined role an eerie and unsettling affect. Michelle Trainor (soprano) was heartbreaking as Hagar.

The orchestra was placed off to the side, behind a flight of metal stairs. Throughout the opera, music and voices came from unexpected places, adding to the sense of disconnect while weaving the story together from different angles.

In the Boston production, MacMillan’s opera opened with Schubert’s song Hagar’s Lament. Hagar was Sarah’s handmaid, and the mother of Abraham’s son, Ishmael. Exiled to the desert by Sarah, Hagar mourns as she watches her dying son. Schubert’s song transitions seamlessly into MacMillan’s opera. In a press release, MacMillan said, “When BLO suggested the addition of this Schubert song to my opera, I was immediately intrigued by the dramatic possibilities. It’s the first time – to my knowledge – that one of my works has been paired with Schubert, and its addition to Clemency will give the opera a unique perspective. I can’t wait to see it.”

The Schubert rounded out the story presented in MacMillan’s new opera, bringing out still more elements of clemency amid themes of good and evil in the same body – in this case, Sarah. Do we all struggle with these dual angels? I think (and hope) MacMillan would have found this addition satisfactory, and that future audiences will have the opportunity to see it with BLO’s interpretation.