Clemency, Linbury Studio Theatre, London

James MacMillan completed his new chamber opera long before the US sent a group of commandos to neutralise Osama bin Laden – and yet his adaptation of an Old Testament tale could hardly have been better calculated to raise questions about the raid’s moral validity.

Three mysterious men arrive at the home of Abraham and Sarah, who offer them hospitality. The men are either angels on a mission to administer God’s justice to a nearby community or terrorists bent on violence. Abraham asks them to show clemency towards the “good”.

The piece is loaded with all sorts of knotty questions. Who is good and who is bad, and who are we to judge? Is revenge sufficient reason for summary justice? Can violence ever be justified, even when ordered by an Old Testament God?

Clemency was premiered by ROH2, the Royal Opera House’s fig leaf for small-scale creativity. The piece really belongs in church, for Michael Symmons Roberts’ libretto is too bluntly moralistic to be taken seriously in an opera house. MacMillan’s score, ranging across quasi-Orthodox chant, lyrical reflection and passages of extreme tension, never lets us see Abraham and Sarah as anything other than symbols.

But at 50 minutes Clemency does not overstay its welcome. The instrumental accompaniment could best be described as a concerto for string orchestra, with techniques lifted from Vaughan Williams and Tippett. It is equally indebted to Hungarian folk music. All this enhances MacMillan’s reputation as a skilled musical magpie.

Katie Mitchell’s staging, conducted by Clark Rundell, is sensitive to the work’s ambiguities. Its biggest asset is Alex Eales’s three-room set, built like a gilt-framed altar. Janis Kelly and Grant Doyle give meaning to their every movement, while the so-called “Triplets” – Adam Green, Eamonn Mulhall and Andrew Tortise – blend together well.

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