Five singers with electroacoustic music and video
Premiered at the Junction Theatre, Cambridge in May 2005 by the Electric Voice Theatre
Duration 85 minutes
The libretto derives inspiration mainly from a book by anthropologist Carol Delaney (Abraham On Trial) which dissects the familiar bible story in terms of gender and patriarchy. It begins with an account of a trial in northern California of a man who claimed to be commanded by God to sacrifice his youngest daughter. Her account of the trial makes clear that many of the participants were extremely troubled by the comparison of the accused with the biblical patriarch.
With a cast of five, the first act retells the original story: a (male) story-teller and a young woman watch and comment as the relationships between Abraham, Sarah and Isaac unravel. The first act ends with the angelic intervention on Mount Moriah. Then an interlude whirls the action forward to a courtroom in California in 1992. Two journalists watch and comment on the progress of the trial of John Vallier. His wife Rosa also watches and struggles - with the court itself, the prying journalists, and a court psychologist who needs her help in assessing her husband’s state of mind. When Vallier is pronounced “not guilty”, Rosa precipitates a confrontation with Abraham’s legacy.
In two short acts, Abraham on Trial juxtaposes the biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac with a story set in 1990s California: John Vallier is on trial for the murder of his daughter, an act which he claims he was instructed to carry out by God. The newly-composed work, premiered at Cambridge’s achingly trendy new artistic centre, The Junction, styles itself as an “electroacoustic opera” and in keeping with its subject matter, fused traditional and innovative elements. Andrew Lovett’s score combines sung roles with a pre-recorded soundtrack of vocal, instrumental and electronic sound, ranging from visceral screeches to angelic chorales, and the whole action is played against a backdrop of video projections by Brian Ashbee.
Abraham on Trial takes inspiration from the book of the same name by the anthropologist Carol Delaney, in which she “questions the foundations of the faith that made a virtue out of the willingness to sacrifice a child”. The opera’s creators have formulated this central issue in a way that is beautifully apt for the medium, taking up the notion of “hearing voices” common to the Abraham and Vallier stories and running with it, posing questions about the authority of the storyteller and drawing attention to characters whose voices have traditionally gone unheard. Andrew Lovett’s marvellously expressive vocal writing, recalling Luciano Berio at some climactic moments, was superbly realised by the five members of the Electric Voice Theatre. Immaculate diction ensured that not a syllable was lost. The rich baritone of Gwion Thomas was perfect for his several “authority figure” roles, and his portrayal of the detached curiosity of the psychiatrist in the second act was a highlight. James Meek’s more controlled baritone made him a rather understated Abraham, in keeping with the piece’s questioning of his traditional image; and the hauntingly pure tone of the counter-tenor David Sheppard brought something of the fragility of his first-act Isaac into his later portrayal of John Vallier. But it was in the female roles that the drama was really concentrated: Jenny Miller’s warm tone contrasted pleasingly with the straighter voices, and she carried off very convincingly a potentially awkward moment when Sarah’s voice is reduced to agonised mouthing. Frances M Lynch was a little mannered in her first guise as the boyish storyteller’s companion, but when we heard her at full throttle as Rosa she brought the work to a hair-raising climax.
- KARIS MCKEE (Opera Magazine, August 2005, pp 995 - 996)
Superbly sung, with practically every word distinct, and digital electronic music never less than impressive, this is a modern opera on an ancient theme.
- Valerie Grosvenor Myer, Stage Online Reviews May 2005
The score for Abraham is one of the most potent and effective mixed pieces that I have experienced in over thirty years of being closely connected to the world of electroacoustic music.
- Dr Ian Cross Director of the Centre for Music and Science, Cambridge University