CLASSICAL_JamesMacMillan_03_cEricAntoniou

How frustrating for the cast and musicians of the Boston Lyric Opera's latest Opera Annex production, not to mention ticketholders, that this month's blizzard forced the cancelation of two of only four scheduled performances of Scottish composer James MacMillan's Clemency (co-commissioned by BLO), its North American premiere.

Happily, one performance was added (February 11), and intrepid patrons braved ice and slush and Boston's parking ban to get to South Boston's sleek Artists for Humanity EpiCenter, a remarkable venue for inner-city student artists, some of whom participated in the creation of Julia Noulin-Mérat's intriguing semi-abstract set — mainly a "tree" made of planks and wooden chairs arching over a simple central platform (surrounded by the audience).

Michael Symmons Roberts's libretto retells the Genesis story of three angels (here played as suicide bombers), en route to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, stopping to inform the aged Abraham that Sarah will have a child. The opera comes closest to life near the end, when Abraham tries to negotiate "clemency" for the Sodomites.

His program bio describes MacMillan as "the pre-eminent Scottish composer of his generation," which I suppose means that he's younger than Peter Maxwell Davies (composer of Opera Annex's very best production, last year's The Lighthouse, at the JFK Library) or Thea Musgrave, both several decades older and many notches more compelling and original. Clemency's most striking music is for the mysterious harmonizing travelers (baritone David McFerrin, tenors Neil Ferreira and Samuel Levine) and the unaccompanied chanting of Abraham in an invented Middle Eastern language.

Baritone David Kravitz and soprano Christine Abraham were outstanding as the elderly couple. BLO music director David Angus (magnificent in The Lighthouse) expertly led the small ensemble of strings and piano. But with the players tucked in a little niche off to the side, why did everyone sing so loud?

Especially soprano Michelle Trainor, who, in a fascinating if unnecessary prologue added to MacMillan's 50-minute one-act, sang Hagar, the servant whom the barren Sarah allowed to have Abraham's child (Ishmael, the father of Islam). The music was Schubert's first published song (arranged and translated by Angus), "Hagar's Lament" — her long outcry against being cast into the desert with Ishmael and starving. It's not great Schubert, and stage director Andrew Eggert, perfectly competent staging the opera, left poor Trainor wandering aimlessly about the stage, singing her lungs out. Both she and Schubert needed more help than they got.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ » LSCHWARTZ@PHX.COM

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