Ten years in the making, and two months after its first performance by Welsh National Opera in Cardiff, James MacMillan’s new opera finished its UK tour with a performance at Sadler’s Wells on Monday evening.
Based on an episode in The Mabinogion, a collection of ancient Welsh folk tales, the libretto by Michael Symmons Roberts tells the story of how a family attempts to end decades of civil war through personal sacrifice.
The setting is a hotel near a battle zone in the year 2080. The leader of one of the warring factions, The General, has arranged the marriage of his daughter, Sian, to Mal, the leader of the other side, in order to try and end the bloodshed. The marriage takes place despite the attempts of her ex-lover, Evan, to dissuade her. The action then jumps forward to seven years after the marriage, when a fragile peace is threatened by the actions of both Evan and Mal.
The WNO’s marketing describes The Sacrifice as a “highly charged thriller” and promises it “really will have you on the edge of your seat.” Although interesting to watch, The Sacrifice did not live up to these claims. It did not help that the action was confined to two rooms in a hotel, the modest sets for which somehow robbed the main characters of a necessary sense of importance and gravitas. The future setting seemed more of a gimmick than an essential plot element, the main indication of a war-torn society being the occasional flickering light.
More serious was a lack of depth and growth in characterisation. Key dramatic moments seemed to occur spontaneously rather than arise from the motivations of the protagonists. The tension in the story was sustained mainly by the shock factor of events in Acts 2 and 3.
This is an opera of course and it is also the role of the music to convey passion, underline motives and propel the drama. Possibly the libretto would have worked better with a different score, but I often found it difficult to relate MacMillan’s music to the events on stage or the likely thoughts of the main characters. MacMillan’s music is frequently dissonant, often reminiscent of Berg’s Wozzeck, but also with the occasional hint of Strauss’s Elektra. The music was at its best during set pieces such as the lively wedding scene at the end of Act 1.
MacMillan’s orchestration was a strong point, with interesting sonorities and the singers always audible above the orchestra. The writing for vocals was of a gentler, more lyrical appeal, although there was often a lack of distinctive melody. Surtitles were helpfully provided, although not really needed. MacMillan himself drew confident playing from the WNO Orchestra.
The highlight of the evening was the singing, notably Lisa Milne as Sian, Leigh Melrose as Evan, Peter Hoare as Mal and Christopher Purves as The General, all uniformly excellent. Also worthy of mention was Sarah Tynan in the difficult role of Megan. The WNO Chorus was superb, most notably in a choral threnody near the close of Act 3.
The Sacrifice is a bold attempt to reinvigorate opera for the 21st century, but on its present form I am not sure it is a sufficiently cogent work of art to be of appeal to future generations.