“We think it gives the opera a totally new dimension,” added Russell. MacMillan agrees: “It's a natural pairing, and I like the idea of finding a partner for my short work.” MacMillan and his librettist Symmons Roberts are both planning to be in Boston for the premiere.
The original production of “Clemency” at the Royal Opera, directed by Katie Mitchell, updated the setting to what one reviewer called “the downtrodden present,” suggestive of the Balkan wars of the 1990s. This was fine with MacMillan, who says that he is “non-proprietary” about his music and doesn’t mind updating in productions of his operas. In places, Symmons Roberts’s libretto uses what MacMillan calls “angel speak,” a kind of code language blending features of Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin to create the “impression of an ancient tongue.” In most of his major works, MacMillan has been drawn to “mythic ideas and scripture,” and to the model of the polyphonic music of composers such as Palestrina and Bach. The musical style of “Clemency,” he remarked, is probably most closely related to the sound world of his acclaimed 1993 work for choir and string orchestra, “Seven Last Words From the Cross.”
“I love the monochrome effect of the combination of voices with strings, because strings are so vocal anyway,” he says.
MacMillan does resist the idea that the message of “Clemency” is a political one, that the three travelers represent the unmerciful and dogmatic attitude of established religions toward human diversity. “You can never second guess what an audience is looking for. What I want to do is to touch them with music and drama. I’ve never used my music as a propaganda piece.”
Harlow Robinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.