Clemency, Linbury Studio, London
From the House of the Dead, Grand Theatre, Leeds

James MacMillan's opera weaves the longing for a child with the skewed vision of fundamentalism

Has James MacMillan mellowed? Clemency, his latest opera, introduces the most complex of subjects in the most direct musical language.

The forces are modest (five singers and 24 strings), the score concise, only 45 minutes long. The hectoring ululations of his St John Passion have softened into an unaccompanied melismatic prayer, prelude to a simple meal. There are allusions to Tippett, Britten, even Palestrina, fluency and brightness in the sunburst arpeggios and golden halos of the orchestration. Most surprisingly, there is a hint of revulsion at the strident certainty of the three Angels who visit Abraham and Sarah on their way to raze Sodom and Gomorrah.

Designed by Alex Eales, with a set in the form of a Flemish altarpiece, Katie Mitchell's Royal Opera House/ Scottish Opera co-production has simplicity and gravity. Having collaborated with MacMillan and his librettist, Michael Symons Roberts, on Parthenogenesis and The Sacrifice, she is attuned to their rhythms. The opera opens to ambient sounds – birdsong and aircraft. In one panel of the triptych, Sarah (Janis Kelly) kneads bread. In the second, Abraham (Grant Doyle) counts his earnings. The third is a mirror image of the second, allowing us to witness the dialogue from both sides.

The branches of an oak tree reach through a broken window into the room where Abraham offers food and shelter to three travellers (Andrew Tortise, Eamonn Mulhall and Adam Green). They enter as workmen and leave as assassins, an otherworldly dazzle of righteous triads in rhythmic unison. For certainty, read fundamentalism. The aircraft noise is the first of several references to 9/11. Having repaid Abraham's mitzvah with the miraculous news of Sarah's pregnancy, the triplets fulminate against the sins of the "twin towns". Abraham's pleas for mercy are ignored, leaving Sarah to contemplate motherhood with "gratitude and terror", as well she might, given this baby's future role as putative sacrifice. One life is given, thousands taken. Is this justice?

Under Clark Rundell's calm, clear beat, the Britten Sinfonia realise MacMillan's score with bite, beauty and vigour. Nothing is lost by the lack of percussion, brass and woodwind. In the dry acoustic of the Linbury Studio, the divisi strings had an astonishing gleam, as did the trio of Old Testament hitmen. How much of Sarah's history with Hagar was in Kelly's characterisation? Was that guilt in her face? Jealousy? Mouth twisted into mirthless laughter or wild nausea, she is riveting, despite a challenging tesseratura and lyrics that ape the King James Bible, without matching its poetry. Doyle's Abraham is sympathetic and eloquent from his opening prayer to his futile imprecations. Best ignore the backstory and what later passes between him and Isaac, miracle child.

Retribution is further flayed in From the House of the Dead. Based on Dostoyevsky's memoir of imprisonment in a Siberia gulag, Janácek's last opera is a collage of personal histories. Stained-glass brass, keening woodwind and klezmer strings collide with tawdry tales of vagrancy, deception, murder. Some want to confess, some to justify their crimes. Janácek makes no judgement, but performs the authorial miracle of letting them speak for themselves. Perhaps this is what he meant by finding the "spark of God".

John Fulljames's Opera North production underlines the episodic, confessional nature of the opera. As Skuratov (Alan Oke), Shapkin (Mark Le Brocq), Filka (Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts) and Shishkov (Robert Hayward) relate and revise their narratives, their words are projected in crude, handwritten letters. Richard Farnes conducts with passion and precision, though the orchestra are slow to warm up. Designed and lit by Dick Bird and Bruno Poet, the prison is a monster that guzzles life and spits death. Dissident Goryanchikov (Richard Morrison) watches in horror as the feast- day pantomime incites brutality that results in the injury of the boy Alyeya (Claire Wild). But the systemic dehumanisation of the mad and bad makes victims of them all. Untidy strings aside, it's a powerful achievement for Opera North, whose male chorus must feel like lifers after this and Fidelio.

'From the House of the Dead' Lowry, Sal- ford (0843 208 6000) Thurs, and tour

Next Week:

Anna Picard hopes for fairy-dust in ENO'S new A Midsummer Night's Dream

Classical Choice

There's a chance to hear a rarity as Cantus Cölln perform Buxtehude's seven-part meditation, Membra Jesu nostri as part of the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music at St John's Smith Square, London (Tue). David McVicar's new production of Die Meistersinger opens the Glyndebourne season (from Sat) amid the rolling downs of East Sussex.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test