tue 16/07/2024

King Priam, English Touring Opera, Linbury Studio Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

King Priam, English Touring Opera, Linbury Studio Theatre

King Priam, English Touring Opera, Linbury Studio Theatre

Cluttered production doesn't help Tippett's tough approach to Trojan War mythology

Feathers and war paint: Laure Meloy as Hecuba and Roderick Earle as PriamAll images by Richard Hubert Smith

Tippett’s selective, often compelling and mostly well-structured take on Trojan War myths will never capture the wider public’s imagination as much as even the least of Britten’s operas. His ideas sometimes pierce the soul but don’t stick there in the same way, and the human interest level never goes so deep. The sounds, though, are something else: a splintering of interest groups, or even a single instrument, to flank each character.

We ought to be gripped by the selective clusters from the opening trumpet fanfares – “heralds before the curtain” – and yowling offstage chorus. James Conway’s production opens not with the fireworks I expected, but with a whimper: brass at the back of the stage, onstage chorus blocking them. It’s the first of many blunders in an almost relentlessly clumsy piece of stagecraft.

What would I do? Keep the chorus - and ETO's is superb - in the wings when the original stage directions say so, strike Anna Fleischle’s ungainly set, bring the instrumentalists down to share a third of a bare performing space with the singers, as they did in the Linbury production of Gerald Barry’s dazzling The Importance of Being Earnest, and there’d still be more space for movement.

The costumes - all feathers, silly hats and warpaint, as in a bad Star Trek episode - give as much cause for mirth as some of the lines in the libretto. Tippett’s own, it isn’t bad for the most part, but observations like “life is a bitter charade”, with the orginal extra syllable on the ‘-de’ now dropped, occasioned a few giggles among younger audience members, especially when repeated in an increasingly knotty trio for the Old Man (Andrew Slater), Nurse to the baby Paris (Clarissa Meek) and the Young Guard who carries him away to safety (Adam Tunnicliffe). These three have an especially thankless choric task in Tippett’s larger scheme of showing the mystery in human choice.

Judgment scene in ETO production of Tippett's King PriamIs that really all it’s about – Priam’s wavering to kill the son the seer tells him will be his death, the resurgent, grown Paris’s choice to go with Helen and give the golden apple to her double Aphrodite (the judgment scene pictured right)? I don’t know and, given Tippett’s schematic characterizations, I didn’t often care. And I don’t want to be told to “feel the pity and the terror” of war if the music, for all its harsh ingenuity, doesn’t make me do so.

The vocal phrases are too relentlessly declamatory, in any case. They seemed to be defeating the Priam of Roderick Earle – either exhausted or under the weather (I hate to say it can only get worse as the run progresses). They give promising heroic tenor Charne Rochford a hell of a time as Achilles sits in his tent not so much musing as hollering about his homeland, soulful as the accompanying guitar undoubtedly is. I haven't heard a more uncomfortable rant since Helen Field’s awful Mother in Poul Ruders’ The Handmaid’s Tale at English National Opera.

The rest of the cast deals incredibly well both in synchronising with conductor Michael Rosewell and his invisible orchestra - Iain Farrington has given them a reduced instrumentation, though as Tippett's original is so spare, it rarely shows - and in embracing the taxing, tiring lines. Lyric tenor Nicholas Sharratt committed his familiar musicality to the sheer intensity of febrile Paris; he’s a perfectly fine looking chap, but Tippett the librettist should have known better than to advertise him as “the most beautiful man alive". Paris’s childhood incarnation was impeccably well taken by treble Thomas Delgado-Little, keenly tabbed by oboist Louise Hayter. Grant Doyle kept decent Hector on the boil despite headgear the daftness of which was only matched by Adrian Dwyer’s Hermes. Perhaps if Dwyer had sung a little more softly when the messenger of death waxes lyrical over "divine music", we might have believed it, for just a flute and a harp do not sublimity make if the substance isn’t transcendent.

Camilla Roberts as Andromache in ETO King PriamBest of all were the women – edgy Hecuba/Athene (strong soprano Laure Meloy) with a solo violin for support as too often (Tippett wanted the full ensemble), seductive cipher Helen/Aphrodite (Niamh Kelly) and above all the most compelling presence and voice in a mostly strong cast, Camilla Roberts as Andromache (pictured above). Unfortunately the ladies' ritual return before Priam’s too long postponed death only highlighted the drama’s dying spasms, and the final inevitable demise was weak.

Yet so it is in Tippett’s work too, and though the opera has had more propulsive advocates in David Atherton’s dream cast recording and Nicholas Hytner’s more focused Kent Opera production happily still on DVD, you can’t help remembering that Britten’s War Requiem appeared in the Coventry Festival alongside King Priam back in 1962. The great was the enemy of the good then; so it remains with the passing of time. And there's pity and terror for you.


David Nice is spot on about the production's shortcomings but his ludicrously clotheared reaction to this self-evidently great opera beggars belief.

Ah, an objective member of the Tippett fan club. If the opera is so 'self-evidently great', I think you should do us the courtesy of explaining why, as I've gone to the trouble of trying, I believe fairly, to put my finger on why I think it isn't. Clearly compelling sounds and originality aren't qualities enough.

Well it's just full of beautiful music. The guitar that accompanies Achilies in his tent; the cello obligato that weaves in and out of Andromache's lament at the start of the third act; the wonderful glockenspiel continuo during the Judgement of Paris scene; the sonorous authority of the brass ensemble which is always used to announce Priam; the sweet innocence of "They have taken my bull. He was my best friend". Tippett is much better (imho) at using sound to enhance drama than Britten as eg in Achilies's war cry. Staging the Trojan war is a big ask as other composers have discovered and Tippet does it in a domestic way which works for the subject and provides him with a platform to explore his many obsessions. It's hard to get bored with this opera. (apols if Greek spelling not 100%).

There is no glockenspiel in King Priam.

No, Inversnaid, there isn't, not even in the 'bigger' version (and yes, I was aware this was reduced, but not much, as 'Despairing' in another manifestation would have us believe. In any case, I've added a line about Iain Farrington's discreet downscaling). And my point is that I do admire all these selective uses of instruments; I'm always interested by the score (except when the men and women sing their interminable respective trios in Acts 2 and 3). But it never moves me.

And I didn't say there weren't problems in Plomer's and Piper's libretti for Britten (Slater's and Duncan's too for that matter). But I still think Britten combines almost as selective a use of sound as drama with substance that really gets to me. As this doesn't, though I won't deny some of the ideas have come back to me today.

Nor is this an especially callow judgment, such as always maddens me when fellow critics pounce without having heard the piece before. This is the fourth production I've seen, and I've just been spending five weekly classes on the opera with a group of students.

The music is very uneven in its inspiration. Act One is dominated by a predictable neo-classicism -- harmonically stark, melodically dry, orchestrally brassy, as if in self-conscious denial of the gorgeous, expansive, dotty lyricism which allows "The Midsummer Marriage" to get away with its nonsense. Act Two, barely half an hour, unclogged with Brechtian devices, is superb: suddenly, the opera finds its own pulse and personality, moving in one confident sweep through Achilles' beautiful song of nostalgia (accompanied by guitar) to a thrilling grand opera climax. But the lean muscularity, the vitality and virility, the boldness of colour falters again in Act Three, which starts with an immensely tedious scene for the ladies (cel- los, and a plangent note). The crucial confrontation of Priam with his son's slayer Achilles doesn't fulfil all that has come before: some big aria ought to be there, something to pull it all together; instead there is disintegration. This opera is, in my opinion, far from being the masterpiece it is cracked up to be.

The commenter above is no more or less objective a member of the Tippett fan club, than Nice is an objective member of the Britten militia. (Nice does not say why he thinks the rather simplistic message / music of the War Requiem is superior..) For my part, every line of the Priam text is superior to Death in Venice's po-faced pronouncement or the sheer rubbish of Gloriana. Why is Priam good? The original dramatic and philosophical twists on the Iliad story? The war cry? The amazing management of its epic scale? The extraordinary structure ? Oh, and er the music? Nice doesn't seem to have realised that ETO are using a heavily reduced orchestration.

Nice must have a hard time at the opera always requiring singers to be as beautiful as the libretto describes them. He must hate Flott singing Helen of Troy in Offenbach, to name just one example. Sheerly unintelligent and misinformed reviewing. The major issue with the costumes and much of the movement is that they were all recycled from ETO's production of Geohr's opera on King Lear. This reviewer can have his smashing plates and 'war is bad' messages for instantaneous 'effect'; the rest of us can deal with grownup questions.

I don't require that at all; my only point is that though we know Paris and Helen are supposed to be beautiful, it would have been helpful for performers if 'the most beautiful man alive' wasn't inserted in the text. Actually I do think Flott was/is beautiful, alluring etc (though not in the disastrous ENO show) - I do think some sort of sex appeal helps, as it did with this Helen.

But still that's only one point. You don't say what you regard as 'misinformed', though you're entitled to your opinion that I'm 'unintelligent'.And I don't understand what your last sentence is supposed to mean.

What makes you think the costumes were "recycled"?

Anonymous- thank you for your comment. I would like to clarify though that whilst Roderick Earle's antler headdress does indeed resemble to some extent one of the costumes from Promised End in 2010, the costumes from ETO's production were not recycled, but were all made specificallly for this tour. John Walker - English Touring Opera

I can only add my voice to David's doubt over the quality of King Priam. There's so little warmth, so little integration between libretto and musical emotion - it's a hard work to love. On the night I heard it there were also some fairly serious vocal issues going on, notably from Priam and poor Achilles.

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