The creation of Boston Lyric Opera's production of Clemency has inspired a journey into the multiple musical and intellectual layers of the ancient biblical story of Abraham and Sarah. Figures from the Old Testament have long held a position of prominence in Western art music, in both sacred and secular works. James MacMillan's opera joins a tradition of works that renegotiate the traditional boundaries of genre, presenting audiences with a drama on themes of faith, in a contemporary musical language that offers a bold new reading of an ancient tale.
When Abraham and Sarah are visited by a group of three travelers, their faith and aspirations for the future are repeatedly challenged. These episodes drawn from the Book of Genesis all hinge upon acts of faith in times of doubt. The three travelers represent the embodied potency of the divine presence on earth, but they are a divinity that cannot be predicted. Abraham and Sarah are left questioning whether they are ultimately angels of mercy or angels of vengeance.
As an accompanying drama, our production introduces the figure of Hagar, Sarah's handmaid. We open with an early song by Franz Schubert, Hagar's Lament, as a narrative prelude that encompasses Hagar's struggles after being sent into exile by Abraham and Sarah. Schubert's musicalization of the inner world of Hagar resonates deeply with the themes of the opera. As the mother of Abraham's son, Ishmael, Hagar represents the origin of the other major branch of the Abrahamic line that would give rise to the faith of Islam. By integrating Hagar into the narrative, the domestic drama peers into the lives of husband, wife, and mistress and cuts across lines of social class, caste, and religion.
Presented in collaboration with the Artists For Humanities EpiCenter, our design for the opera is governed by the concept of creating an immersive theatrical environment. Beginning with the architecture of the EpiCenter's gallery space, we have treated the entire room as a stage in which multiple layers of action unfold. At the very center of the space, surrounded by and extending above the audience, we have placed the construction of a tree, an organic symbol of shelter and a metaphorical referent to the presence of the divine (a theme that recurs throughout scripture: the tree of knowledge, the burning bush, the oaks of Mamre). Yet our entire design is also conceptually driven by the idea of re-purposing the materials of the modern world. The materials in our scenic installation span the spectrum from the raw/natural to the fabricated, and we have considered the ways in which a new construction made from recycled pieces can give second life to pre- and post-consumer materials.
Clemency challenges us to rethink ourselves, to measure the impact of our lives in a modern world that continues to be marked politically and spiritually by acts of mercy and acts of vengeance. The contemporary relevance of the opera reaches a peak in the final scene, when the three travelers move on from the home of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar in order to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Here, again, the line between faith and action is tested. Modern-day headlines of conflict in the Middle East and other regions of the world remind us that religious fundamentalism continues to drive human beings to desperate acts of destruction. Now, perhaps more than ever, Abraham's plea for mercy must be heard.