You have to hand it to James MacMillan: he has mastered the formula of 19th-century grand opera. Most of his contemporaries, aiming to be original, choose the wrong material, overloading the libretto, misjudging singers’ needs, laming the dramatic structure or just writing inadequate music. But the 48-year-old Scot looks to the past.
The Sacrifice, premiered by Welsh National Opera on Saturday in an expertly cast production conducted by the composer, offers as many thrills as Tosca, as much agony as Peter Grimes, more violence than Elektra and Salome combined and a suspense quotient to rival Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. MacMillan’s expertly crafted music has easy-to-identify theme tunes and gut-wrenching climaxes. WNO’s chorus has a role worthy of it, with a closing tableau of which Verdi himself would have been proud.
Drawing on a story from The Mabinogion, a Welsh collection of ancient folk tales, the opera explores a self-perpetuating cycle of tribal enmity, where brutality reigns in spite of hopes of conciliation through marriage. Think Bosnia, Northern Ireland or any number of African clashes. The Sacrifice ploughs the same violent furrow as MacMillan’s previous opera, Inés de Castro, but in a setting more attuned to our times.
So, have the problems of the post-Britten operatic landscape been solved? Even MacMillan – never one to withhold an opinion – would not claim that.
The problem with The Sacrifice is that (to use a metaphor the staunchly Catholic composer might understand) it pours new wine into old wineskins, with a bouquet redolent of plonk. This old-fashioned narrative opera behaves as if the much of the 20th century, never mind the 21st, has yet to happen. It offers little psychological depth, poses no ethical dilemma. Its characters are as subtle as a cartoon strip.
As for entertainment value, MacMillan does plant one foot in the modern world: he sets out to shock, and succeeds in a scene in which a child is brutally murdered.
Michael Symmons Roberts has furnished an excellent libretto, built in half-rhymed couplets that leave acres of space for the music. MacMillan sets the words gratefully, with a central duet for soprano and baritone (“Your heart is my homeland”) that is more beautiful than anything in modern opera. Even his penchant for liturgical chant finds dramatic legitimacy in the Act Three funeral rites. The gentler music is spiced with the skirling motifs of Scottish folk tradition – very fetching – and the violence is rammed home with repeated stony thwacks.
But it’s hard to take MacMillan seriously when he rehashes so much by other composers – 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.
Katie Mitchell’s down-to-earth production, set in the drab confines of an eastern European hotel (Vicki Mortimer and Miriam Buether), serves MacMillan perfectly. Lisa Milne gives the performance of her life as Sian, a woman who sacrifices love for duty. Christopher Purves, Leigh Melrose and Peter Hoare make convincing political thugs. Sarah Tynan’s Megan is properly enigmatic, the one role that leaves room for the imagination.
The Sacrifice achieves what its authors set out to do. It takes the clichés of opera – love, revenge, death, the conflict of public duty and private desire – and drapes them in a language today’s audiences understand. MacMillan is no fool: he knows you don’t have to be original to be successful. Tel +44 (0)8700 40 2000