Sunday, 9 September 2012

Scottish Opera takes revenge...

One of the best things about the prophets and patriarchs of the Torah is the way that they are constantly arguing with G-d. If they aren't running away from their sacred mission, they are complaining about justice, or questioning the divine will. Both contemporary fundamentalists and their atheist opponents frequently forget that The Bible refuses to present a monolithic notion of the holy. From the book of Genesis, where two competing creation myths are laid out for consideration, scripture is all about the dialogue.

James MacMillan has never been shy about his Catholicism: Clemency unsurprisingly uses a story from The Bible to question the nature of vengeance. Better known as an icon by Andrei Rublev, the meeting between Abraham, his wife and three angels is a prime example of how Judaism's relationship with G-d is anything but simplistic.

In collaboration with regular librettist Michael Symmons Roberts, MacMillan updates the story, giving the angels the feel of three terrorists. The hints of middle eastern music in the score, and the extended justification of the angel's behaviour, draws explicit parallels to the activities of certain Islamic groups. The great moral rage of the trio might be deliberately timeless, but it acts as a handy condemnation of modern excesses, whether metaphorically or literally - the details could come from any journalist's description of war zones or invaded nations.

The triptych stage set consciously pulls the opera back into the grand tradition of religious art: the costumes update the story, much in the way that Renaissance artists would do to Biblical stories. The message is clear that far from being irrelevant, Biblical stories retain a mythological meaning and are not to be mistaken for historical truth.

And so, Scottish Opera's New Opera season does something rare: religion has not formed the foundation of opera in the same way as it has for visual art, or symphonic compositions. It's a lovely irony that a company so keen to woo a younger audience (great deals for the youth here) has presented an opera that moves from the form's mainstream into an area that, on the surface, is deeply unfashionable.

There is a slight awkwardness in the libretto, since huge philosophical ideas are flung down in a mixture of prosaic and hyperbolic language. The angels' justification for their murderous intentions (they are off to destroy a couple of towns which have strayed from the path of righteousness) and Sarah's contemplation of her promised child have a stand alone beauty and power that could get them some nice Classic FM airplay. Yet it is the intensity of MacMillan's score and Symmons Robert's brooding questioning that give Clemency a bite.

By the end, when Abraham panics, realising that the angels are unlikely to find the necessary five good souls that would save the towns, or when Sarah ponders the world her child might inherit, the problems of holy rage and deserved retribution have been sketched out for further discussion. Atheists might notice that the angels provide an example of how the divine will can be used to justify some pretty vicious behaviour, just like the G-d that Dawkins doesn't believe in. Believers might be unsettled by the implications of a patriach like Abraham doubting the will of G-d. But Clemency updates the myth, and remains true to its difficult, argumentative nature.

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