ìThe Sacrificeî ñ Welsh National World Premiere Tour

Based on the Branwen story from
the ancient Welsh collection of folktales known as the The Mabinogion, it is
nevertheless uncompromising in its attempt to bring the opera into a 21st
century context. Whether this works is open to question and, on first
acquaintance, the answer would seem to be a regretful ìnoî. Not for the
fact of its contemporary-looking setting, (supposedly a few decades in the
future but actually reminding one more of an East German hotel circa 1985)
but because it confuses an audience as to what and when that world is meant
to be. Here, the the storyline follows a politically arranged wedding of two
significant members of opposing armed political camps which is intended to
bring together the two warring factions and, seven years later, the
investiture of their son which is meant to cement the union. This is a
timeless story, and as such it needs no making ìrelevantî to our recent
experiences of Northern Ireland, Bosnia or Palestine. Indeed, in so doing,
the authors have weakened the strongest points it is trying to make. Some ten
years in the making, perhaps The Sacrifice has suffered the perennial problem
that besets all long-winded projects, be they artistic or commercial: what
seemed vital and relevant a decade ago now projects to todayís audience as
predictable and, worse, disappointing.

However, what does work in a devastatingly effective way is MacMillanís
visceral and multi-textured score where every aspect of the modern orchestra
is used in imaginative and compelling ways: the strange opening triad chords
of the overture immediately evoke an atmosphere that captures the essence of
the piece and this magic continues throughout. Robertís ingenious libretto
of semi-rhyming couplets gives the music plenty of space and expertly conveys
the tensions and uncertainties of the protagonists. Over 70 musicians and
percussionists of the WNO Orchestra are conducted by the composer in this
inaugural run, and they play with intense musicality and commitment,
obviously relishing the detailed chromatic sound world he has created.
Equally successful is his writing for the WNO Chorus and the solo singers and
it was on hearing some of the most potent arias and ensembles for the first
time that one was struck by how very traditional, in some ways, this opera
is: full orchestra, a substantial acting Chorus, a soprano heroine, a second
soprano sub-plot character, tenor and baritone opposing male leads and a
ìfather figureî bass-baritone. The only slight difference, on paper,
between this and any 19th century mainstream opera is that our heroine loves
the baritone, not the tenor, who turns out to be the nearest thing to the
traditional ìbaddieî ñ although no-one in the story is morally clear

Act One sets the scene of the two warring ìtribesî or factions, holed
up in the same depressing, shoddy hotel, scarred by the occasional bullet
hole, and awaiting the fateful wedding of Sian, the first factionís
Generalís daughter to Mal, the opposing factionís famed ìfreedomî
fighter. Sianís real love, Evan, a soldier in the Generalís army, watches
with increasing bitterness and jealousy as the woman he loves appears ready
to betray both him and their faction in the cause of a peace brokered by her
father, in what will be an attempt to end the decades, or maybe centuries, of
conflict. The final scene ends in violence with Evan attempting to kill Mal,
but only succeeding in wounding him.

In Act Two, seven years having passed and Sian and Mal now have two small
boys, but with Evan newly released from captivity the semi-crippled Mal is
convinced his wife is still seeing her old love. He is right ñ they do
meet, and sing the marvellously emotive and soaring duet ìYour heart is my
homelandî before Evan is again forced to flee. Meanwhile, the first born
son of the unhappy couple is due to be crowned ìregentî ñ a new king in
waiting who will, the General hopes, finally confirm the transition from
uneasy truce to unified nation. Again violence and horror dash all such hope
in a way all too familiar in the history of human conflict.

The final Act begins with a funeral, and some sumptuous choral writing
that is communicative of all the longing and distress of any war-torn nation.
In a final act of sacrifice to his dream of a unified country and an end to
the eternal conflict, the General opens up the possibility of hope, although
the auguries are not good.

Many people have commented on MacMillanís use of musical ìsignpostsî
in his writing, his quotations and borrowings of musical forms and ideas.
Nothing new in that of course, and in The Sacrifice, many of these quotes
work extremely well and indeed suggest aural landmarks in the wider landscape
of the score. Echoes of a Bach passacaglia, Purcell word-setting (especially
noticeable in Sianís funeral lament) and even some Wagnerian-style
leitmotifs on the percussion and strings all float in and out of our
conscious perception without ever compromising the essence of the original
music which is in turns richly melodic and tangentially percussive. Boring or
repetitive it is not.

The score is lit from within by the solo work of the excellent singers who
without exception give fine readings of both their music and their
characterisations. There was no weak link, although probably one must single
out the opulent-voiced Lisa Milne as Sian who rose magnificently to the
challenge of some difficult yet rewarding writing. Her duet with Leigh
Melrose as Evan was eloquent and fine-spun, working well with Melroseís
warm yet appropriately edged baritone. He was able to suggest the knife-edge
character of Evan ñ a Celtic split personality capable of great love and
great hatred at one and the same time. Christopher Purves was deeply
convincing as the General, his voice easy in the lowest registers, and able
to communicate the desperate hope, and final realisation, of what he has to
do. As her possibly-autistic, certainly not ìnormalî sister Megan, Ailish
Tynan had the most pure physical acting to do, but she also was able to
subtly shade her bright soprano to suggest an underlying fear and
fore-knowledge of events as she chanted lines of runic verse and obscure
forecasts. The most complex role is that of Mal ñ freedom
fighter/guerrilla, killer turned political leader, jealous husband and loving
father, desperately trying to understand a changing world, and changing
moralities. Peter Hoareís highly-charged and robust tenor was a perfect
instrument for Mal, flying high with rage but also able to colour and darken
with emotional intensity. Rosie Hay, Samantha Hay, Amanda Baldwin sang the
supporting roles of the Three Birds with conviction, even if one might
question their necessity in the drama. All the soloists were superbly
supported and enhanced by the WNO Chorus, who seemed completely at home with
their music with some nuanced singing, producing an admirable amalgam of
light and shade.

The caveats regarding setting aside, it was a tremendous evening of music
theatre, and Welsh National, MacMillan and Roberts are to be congratulated on
a work that is, without doubt, an important one, and one that will take its
rightful place in the repertory.

© Sue Loder 2007

image_description=Lisa Milne (Sian) and Peter Hoare (Mal) [Photo by Catherine Ashmore]
product_title=James MacMillan: The Sacrifice
Welsh National Opera
product_by=Above: Lisa Milne (Sian) and Peter Hoare (Mal)
Photo by Catherine Ashmore