The Sacrifice, James MacMillan's second full-length opera, received its premiere in 2007 with the Welsh National Opera, and this recording comes from that production. The libretto, by poet Michael Symmons Roberts, is an updated version of a story from the medieval Welsh legend The Mabinogion. The plot has to do with the attempt of a General to put an end to a blood feud between his country and a neighboring country, and the cost to himself and his family. MacMillan cites Strauss' Elektra as an inspiration, more for its theme of a bloody family tragedy than for its music, although he does occasionally aspire to a Straussian orchestral intensity. The subject is a reminder of the composer's affinity for gruesome topics, beginning with his breakthrough piece, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, but The Sacrifice is considerably less disturbing than his previous opera, Inés de Castro.
The opera begins promisingly with a gorgeous, evocative orchestral prelude, and some of the interludes are exceptionally beautiful. Those moments are among the most compelling in the opera. MacMillan's text setting is often awkward, and the vocal lines tend to be lyrical but meandering. The set pieces are more effective, and the Act II love duet, after an angular start, settles into a rhapsodic loveliness. Although MacMillan's music in itself is often dramatic, he doesn't have the knack of a natural opera composer in shaping the larger architecture of a scene or of the piece as a whole. The opera receives a committed performance by the Orchestra and Chorus of Welsh National Opera led by Anthony Negus, but the stratospheric string writing sometimes pushes the orchestra's players beyond their comfort level. Baritone Christopher Purves stands out for the nobility of his portrayal, and the other soloists, tenor Peter Hoare, sopranos Lisa Milne and Sarah Tynan, and baritone Leigh Melrose are very fine, making the most of the largely ungrateful vocal lines. Chandos' sound is good for a live recording, well-balanced, and without too much stage or audience noise.