There can be no doubt whatsoever that James MacMillan’s The Sacrifice is one of the most accessible contributions to the world of British opera since Benjamin Britten, with audiences responding even as warmly as they did to Thomas Adès’ The Tempest. Both these works were broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and each of these broadcasts has been cleaned up and recently issued on double CD (Adès on EMI, 2009; MacMillan on Chandos, 2010). Both operas also have composers who enjoy successful careers as conductors, but while Adès conducted The Royal Opera House forces at Covent Garden, it was unfortunate that on the night when The Sacrifice was broadcast from the Wales Millennium Theatre with Welsh National Opera, MacMillan was unwell and was therefore forced to hand over the reins to Anthony Negus.
Before assessing the extent to which this last-minute change of conductor affected the performance, some comments on the work itself are appropriate. The narrative of this - MacMillan’s second - opera comes from The Mabinogion, a collection of Celtic myths as seen through the eyes of medieval Wales. MacMillan had used this ancient source for an earlier work, The Birds of Rhiannon, the orchestral tone poem which acts as precursor to the opera, both in terms of narrative and music, for almost all the music of The Birds of Rhiannon was re-worked into The Sacrifice. However, its initial conception was operatic: according to librettist Michael Symmons Roberts, The Sacrifice (completed in 2006) was ten years in the making, initiated by a commission from Anthony Freud at Welsh National Opera.
The Sacrifice borrows extensively but not exclusively from ‘The Second Branch of the Mabinogi’. Like MacMillan’s first opera, Inès de Castro, the opera concerns two rival tribes and a relationship between a man a woman from each tribe. However, unlike Inès de Castro, which uses the cliché Romeo-and-Juliet situation of the lovers torn apart by their different cultures, in The Sacrifice they are fused together in the hope that peace might ensue. It is The General who instigates the union between his own daughter, Sian, and Mal from the enemy tribe. This marks the first sacrifice of the opera, for although Sian agrees to the marriage for the sake of her people, she is in love with Evan, a man from her own tribe and who reciprocates her love. The wedding goes ahead, years pass, and Sian and Mal have two sons. But beneath this seemingly happy situation lays a tension, namely Evan, and things soon take a turn for the worse, including violence, the tragic murder of one of the sons, and finally the General’s own self-sacrifice, reminiscent of the Fisher-King tale.
As far as the music is concerned, some listeners, especially the hardcore modernists, might have their reservations. As well as his (entirely deliberate) adoption of a highly exoteric musical language, there is no shortage of references to MacMillan’s operatic predecessors, namely Berg, Strauss (especially Elektra) and most prominently Britten, specifically Peter Grimes, to which certain sections of The Sacrifice’s score owe a great deal. Tradition has long been a part of MacMillan’s ethos, and he clearly felt part of an operatic tradition when writing this work. Though these allusions may be regarded as a practice of ‘postmodernism’, they are in no way to be interpreted as ironic references (certainly not in the manner in which, for example, Ligeti uses explicit quotations in Le Grand Macabre, nor Corigliano’s deliberate mish-mash of historical and contemporary styles in The Ghosts of Versailles). They are instead, an entirely sincere acknowledgement of what has occurred in opera in the twentieth century, and have been integrated into MacMillan’s own style of writing. He is not attempting to say something particularly radical here, but it would be unfair to say he fails to creative a distinctive and unique musical language. The debt to other great British opera writers is evident, but though derivations from Britten are clearly audible, and the composer’s admiration for Birtwistle inevitably encouraged him to tackle a mythological narrative, there is still much that remains quintessentially MacMillan.
At one point it seemed doubtful whether or not this opera would make it on to CD. I remember talking to the composer a short while after the premiere, and asked about the possibility of a recording being released. While he was very keen, he mentioned problems with regard to unwanted stage noises, and indeed, I remember these being quite an issue when it was broadcast on Radio 3. Credit – though not full marks - to Chandos then, for while admittedly some of these remain on the recording, they serve more to maintain the ambiance of a live performance, rather than hinder the listener’s enjoyment. The diction of all the characters is of demonstration standard and is picked up extremely well – so much so that the libretto provided is almost superfluous, though David Nice’s notes are very welcome. This textual clarity does come at a price though, such as the occasional clearing of a throat from a singer (e.g. Christopher Purves, CD 1, track 5, 1:36). The sound is highly detailed, but a little over sensitive and ‘very live’: coughing from the audience, in addition to the sounds onstage, is clearly audible at times, and when the girl band ‘The Birds’ enter in the final wedding scene of Act I, they sound a little distant at first (this is soon rectified). Still, anyone listening to this while bearing in mind that it is a live recording shouldn’t have too much to grumble about. A few seconds of applause follows each of the three acts.
And so on to the performance itself. Pride of place goes to Lisa Milne’s contribution as Sian. MacMillan wrote this part with Milne in mind, and it shows: her passionate portrayal, aided by a superb vocal technique and a warm, full-blooded vibrato expresses a wide array of emotions, from regret, to desire, to maternal tenderness, to venomous anger, to embittered despair. Even in an audio-only experience, Milne’s magnificent acting ability is ever apparent, and I would go so far as to say it would be hard to imagine anyone else bettering this role. She brings to Sian all the embodiment of character she brought to The Governess in Britten’s The Turn of the Screw (Opus Arte, 2004), and together with that DVD performance, this is surely her finest accomplishment to date.
Christopher Purves as the unnamed ‘General’ is equally impressive. His rich yet agile baritone suits the role well, and he displays particular dramatic skill in the agonizing shock and disbelief at the murder of one of his grandsons, almost breaking up as he half-cries out “Our Boy! My Boy! My God!” Sian’s rival lovers are also on fine form. Leigh Melrose as Evan finds the menace of his character well, though there are just a few instances of vocal strain (e.g. CD1, track 3, 0:47 “How can you…”). The love duet he shares with Sian in Act II – the emotional centerpiece of the opera – reveals some of his most sensitive singing, and the two sing with excellent intonation when singing as one in thirds/sixths. Peter Hoare as his rival, Mal, is superb as the jealous, threatening husband, and offers a strong, proud performance in his most extended sung passages – his wedding speeches in the final scene of Act II.
Finally, but by no means least, Megan (Sian’s otherworldly sister) receives a practically perfect rendition from Sarah Tynan. Again, it would be hard to imagine the part of Megan sung with greater naivety and sweetness, and the purity of Tynan’s consistently beautiful voice perfectly captures the character’s innocence. It is Megan who has the very last word, lamenting over the various deaths by reprising her simple, child-like aria “his face and hands were lily-white” from Act II, but this time rising up to a top A flat for the final word, “dead”, and sustaining it, piano, with outstanding control for seventeen seconds!
The fact that Anthony Negus replaced the composer as conductor is scarcely evident. Negus conducts with terrific vitality, whipping up the WNO orchestra for the more dramatic passages and maintaining appropriately sensitive accompaniments elsewhere (listen to the orchestra in the Act II love duet, with the singers’ melody supported by transcendent harmonics and dynamic yet subtle string crossings in the violins). Indeed, although I’ve mentioned some problems with the ‘liveness’ of the sound, it must be said that the balance between orchestra and the singers is never a problem, either the solo singers or the chorus. The latter sang its often Brittenesque writing as if it had known this opera for years, bringing the score to life with vibrant energy. Ensemble is generally excellent throughout (though there’s a slight ‘moment’ in the strings at the beginning: CD 1, track 1, 2:38)
All things considered, I’d rather have this live performance than a possibly tamer, more polished studio version. The excited atmosphere of the Wales Millennium Theatre captured on this slightly rough diamond of a recording reminds the listener that it is, nevertheless, an account to be treasured.
Ed: You can read an interesting interview with James MacMillan on the Chandos Blog by clicking here.
To purchase a copy, please visit the Chandos website, by clicking here.