King Priam, ETO, Linbury Studio

Alix’s birthday treat – Tippett’s King Priam by English Touring Opera at the Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House.

This is what happens when you get involved in community opera – you get friends with the professionals, and you go to see something because someone you know is in it, (four someones in this instance – Grant Doyle, Nick Sharratt, Charne Rochford and Clarissa Meek) and you expand your musical horizons.

Pertinent in the centenary of WWI to be at an explicitly pacifist opera, and pertinent also in LGBT history month to be at a work by an openly gay composer, and a gay relationship depicted in Achilles and Patroclus. And anyone who knows me will know I will take an interest in anything based on the Iliad. A useful pre-performance talk involved a climb to the top of the building and then a rush back down to the bowels of the sub-sub-basement that is the Linbury.

I did find myself wondering whether it is possible to write a drama about pacificism without writing about war, but then I got caught up in the action and the music and forgot about it. Tippett’s work is clever and thought provoking, allowing us inside the head of the title role as Priam speaks to both Hermes (Adrian Dwyer – excellent) and the key players in the fateful decision to condemn and then save Paris as a child.

As a chorus member I pay a lot of attention to choral work, and Tippett is generous to his chorus, giving them first shot at scaring the audience, with a stunning bit of orchestrated screaming at the beginning (which is echoed at the end), that had me sitting up and thinking, oh-ho, this is going to be fun. In the confined space (and fourth row seats) the sound absolutely battered me.  The chorus for the Trojan slaves in act three was excellent too and the chorus were well choreographed, making good use of the limited space, and very comfortable with standing stock still but still acting, particularly when they glare out into the audience as they follow the imagined course of Hector’s corpse dragged behind Achilles’ chariot.

The opera relies on trios both dramatically and musically and they work magnificently; three goddesses, three commentators – Old Man, Nurse, Young Guard), Hecuba, Helen and Andromache, Priam and his two sons, and in this production the battle scenes resolve into threes regularly too. The music for the trios was the most interesting for me – the solo instrument accompaniment for the solos I found a bit obvious and contrary after the first few times, and lacking subtlety, but then I don’t think Tippett was after subtlety.

I absolutely cannot fault anyone on their singing, the whole evening was a feast for the ears, from the piping of choral scholar Thomas Delgado-Little as young Paris, and Clarissa Meek‘s stern Nurse, right through to Grant Doyle‘s cheerfully pugnacious Hector.   Dramatically speaking Laure Meloy is a ferocious Hecuba, while Camilla Roberts is a rather sulky Andromache – Tippett’s fault not Camilla’s, Andromache is more Roman matron than Trojan widow – the implied entitlement to her position and her grief at the death her husband (ranting about whose grief is more important), is rather unappealing. I’ve always had a soft spot for Andromache and it pained me to see her characterised like this.

Much is made in the programme and the pre-performance talk of the third act scene between Helen and Andromache and Hecuba, but I found it a bit expositional (if that’s a word), and I found Helen herself profoundly irritating, I did not feel Niamh Kelly‘s sultry temptress (all Theda Bara) got close to the required demi-goddess we are meant to see, and Helen is meant to present in herself (‘I am Helen’ she sings regularly, as though excusing herself and everyone else for bad behaviour) she has a fabulous voice however.

Interestingly, the characters which Tippett more or less invents – Old Man (Andrew Slater), Young Guard (Adam Tunnicliffe) and Nurse (Clarissa Meek) get some of the best moments, perhaps because Tippett didn’t feel the need to stick to the Iliad.

The design got in the way occasionally, the metal shape mid-stage which acts as throne room, natural rock outcrop and temple, occasionally blocked the chorus and indeed the orchestra – although in seat higher up it might not have been a problem. Although the women’s costumes were mostly exquisite (especially Hecuba), and the use of bone, antler and feather, whilst illogical, was rather entertaining, I was bewildered by the thrown-together look of the male cast – nothing seemed to fit, and the less said about the Japanese style eiderdown skirt for Priam, and curtains (no really, they were definitely curtains) for Paris’ trousers the better; both Roderick Earle and Nicholas Sharratt rose above these impediments, in particular in the scene when they sing a trio on the walls, as Grant Doyle’s Hector prepares to go out to face Achilles, his bravado undermined by dread, and silly Paris still not getting it that this is all his fault. Nick also got the silliest helmet award – the only men comfortable in their armour were Patroclus (ironic since it was meant to be borrowed)  and the Young Guard.

I was disappointed that I occasionally needed the screens with the words (inconveniently to either side of the stage) Mostly the diction was crystal clear but with Charne Rochford I struggled, which was a pity as his scene with Patroclus (an excellent Piotr Lempa) was beautiful, having to glance away to work out what he was singing was a shame.

It is a bleak work, but there are flashes of bitter humour – Paris, suggesting he, Helen and Priam escape and found a new Troy (foreshadowing the Aeneid) is rebutted by Priam with you aren’t the founding sort; the chorus of slaves not caring who owns them – it’s just a change of ownership.

Tippett constantly contrasts cruelty and compassion, and a complexity of what-ifs leading from the first prophesy of Paris’ life meaning Priam’s death (but not Hector’s, as his stricken father weeps) to perhaps generations of retribution; Roderick Earle absolutely convinces as Priam in these later scenes.And it is, appropriately, the grief in the opera is the most convincingly played, with Achilles’ war cry, sung on stage by Charne Rochford, a wordless ullulation of anguish and anger, like a baying hound, fatal and threatening and despairing.

I’m sure the rest of the run is sold out, but it would be worth checking for returns, despite my minor quibbles, an exciting evening of first class music.

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