The progressive flank of the Boston Lyric Opera resumed its onward march on Wednesday night, as the company unveiled the fourth off-site production in its Opera Annex series, initiated in 2010. This time the series brought a contemporary opera to South Boston, taking over a large installation space at the Artists for the Humanity EpiCenter.
The occasion was the North American premiere of Scottish composer James MacMillan’s one-act opera “Clemency,” itself a BLO co-commission with a number European partners. That BLO is not only finding the institutional room to diversify its programming but is also now wading into the business of commissioning is a very hopeful sign.
In “Clemency,” MacMillan and librettist Michael Symmons Roberts have adapted a biblical scene taken from Genesis, in which three mysterious visitors call on Abraham and Sarah, and pronounce that Sarah will bear a son despite her old age. They then leave on a divine mission of vengeance to punish the evil residents of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham pleads with God for mercy, to spare the towns if there are just 10 righteous souls among them.
From this Symmons Roberts has constructed a libretto that’s serviceable and at times better than that. The work opens with a lengthy section of Abraham singing without accompaniment in an invented ancient language. One of the more poetic moments comes before the Travelers arrive, as the patriarch and matriarch are asking each other, “What is the measure of our years?” In the end, Abraham does the actual pleading for mercy but it is Sarah’s impassioned outpourings that carry much of the emotional weight of this work.
MacMillan is no novice when it comes to writing for the stage, and his taut and focused score largely hits its mark. The music has moments of lushness but also plenty of sinew, lyrical curves as well as sharp angles. It is full of Middle Eastern inflections that on occasion tip toward cliché, but the vocal writing for the three Travelers in particular is wonderfully tart and pungent. As a whole, MacMillan succeeds at charging the stage action with the resonance of myth without bogging down the actual pacing of the drama.
BLO’s sets by Julia Noulin-Mérat suggest an appealing mix of simplicity and fantasy. The action plays out mostly on a plain rectangular stage surrounded on all sides by the audience, but much of the visual space is dominated by the branches of an enormous tree made from a jumble of different scraps of wood and old furniture.
In staging “Clemency” BLO’s creative team faced the challenge of what to do with the work’s relatively brief length (just under 50 minutes). Rather than pair it with another contrasting one-act score, the company chose to interpolate a semi-orchestrated version of Schubert’s earliest published song, “Hagar’s Lament,” into the opera’s opening scene. On one level, it was an inspired choice, effectively fashioning this opera with its own biblical prologue focusing on the plight of Sarah’s maid Hagar, who gave birth to Abraham’s son Ishmael but was then banished into the wilderness.
Yet the choice to sew the Schubert without any seams into the opening of “Clemency” was a curious one, as the streamlined economy and organic unity of MacMillan’s score are perhaps its strongest aspects. On Wednesday night the graft seemed to work far better thematically than it did musically.
Andrew Eggert’s stage direction at its best telegraphed a tight, almost ritualized pacing that effectively mirrored aspects of MacMillan’s music. His choice, however, to have the three Travelers outfit themselves as suicide bombers before departing struck me as a pointless provocation. Contemporary Middle Eastern politics may loom behind this work for some listeners, and having Ishmael seen here along with Hagar implicitly expands the opera’s field of reference, gesturing toward the world of Islam. But hitting an audience over the head with the most glaring symbol of present-day extremism ends up muffling the work’s power as an ancient parable with more universal resonance.
Michelle Trainor displayed a forceful soprano voice as Hagar, though she entered at an emotional voltage so high that she had little room to build. David Kravitz was vocally and dramatically excellent as Abraham, and Christine Abraham made a vividly drawn and compelling Sarah. The vocal writing for the three Travelers, combined with the disciplined performance of David McFerrin, Neal Ferreira, and Samuel Levine, made these characters riveting.
The BLO Orchestra, led by David Angus, spent the night largely tucked away out of view, but its performance was solid. Opera Annex now has another space and a co-commission as part of its track record. Part of the fun with this increasingly essential series is seeing just where the company will go next.