Theatre review: Clemency, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

JAMES MacMillan’s 50-minute opera Clemency, to words by Michael Symmons Roberts, premiered in London last year.


King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

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The duration is significant, for MacMillan makes every precious minute count, in the way a short story often packs a bigger punch than a full-blown novel. The sudden ending, though, is viciously curt.

This is familiar biblical territory for the composer: that Genesis parable in which the ageing Sarah and Abraham are visited by three angels who prophecy a son for Sarah, and who, transformed into gun-toting henchmen, turn their attention to avenging the evil ways of the nearby “twin towns”.

Last night’s Scottish premiere by Scottish Opera delivered Clemency as the short sharp operatic shock it is. Katie Mitchell’s production, revived by director Dan Ayling and set within Alex Eales’ tripartite set design, sits well with the opera’s alluringly updated ambiguity. MacMillan’s music – originally performed by the Britten Sinfonia, but here by the strings of Scottish Opera Orchestra – is pungent, dynamic and exotically coloured, with red-hot shades of Britten and Tippett.

Grant Doyle towers vocally as Abraham; Janis Kelly is an endearing Sarah. Christopher Diffey, Adam Green and Eamonn Mulhall are magnificent as the joined-at-the-hip Angels.