James MacMillan
The Sacrifice
Welsh National Opera
Chandos (2 CDs)

MacMillan’s grand opera scored a hit at its premiere two seasons ago in Cardiff, and this live recording helps to explain why. Drawing on The Mabinogion, a Welsh collection of folk tales, The Sacrifice is a compendium of all-too-familiar tricks of the trade. It tells of love, revenge, public duty and private longing, but in a scenario redolent of Bosnia or Northern Ireland. Michael Symmons Roberts’ libretto is shaped in half-rhymed couplets that leave space for the music. MacMillan’s score has easy-to-identify themes and gut-wrenching climaxes, and the central duet for soprano and baritone sounds as beautiful as anything in modern opera. The gentler music includes skirling motifs from Scottish folk tradition – very fetching – and the violence is rammed home with repeated stony thwacks.

So why can’t I recommend it? The problem with The Sacrifice is that it is an old opera masquerading as new. The ideas are second-hand, formulaic and full of clichés. Most of the music is a rehash of other composers’ styles – Shostakovich in the tensile opening string theme, Britten in the female quartet at the end of Act One, Strauss in the Klytaemnestra-like panic of the Act Two finale – without their psychological depth.

The performance reflects well on all concerned – the conductor Anthony Negus, WNO’s orchestra and chorus, and a cast led by Lisa Milne, who gives the performance of her life as Sian, the woman who sacrifices love for duty. Chandos would have done them, and MacMillan, a bigger favour if it had released The Sacrifice as a DVD: it was thanks to Katie Mitchell’s good-looking production, and the strong acting performances she drew, that audiences were so easily taken in.

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