English Touring Opera: King Priam

Helen Wallace reports from a vivid production of Tippett's grand opera

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English Touring Opera: King Priam
Tippett: King Priam, English Touring Opera
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There’s a scene in Act III of King Priam where Helen, her mother-in-law Hecuba and sister-in-law Andromache get together for a potent bitch-fest. Hecuba (the polished and penetrating Laure Melroy) plays the Angela Merkel role, a woman of the world, coolly determined to retain political power; Andromache (a formidable Camilla Roberts) is the Nigella-cum-Camilla Batmanghelidjh one, Domestic Goddess and Mother Earth rolled into one, flying the flag for stay-at-home Mum-ness, reserving her special disgust for the adulterous but beautiful Helen (vibrant young mezzo Niamh Kelly), the ‘it’ girl, who knows the value of her erotic power, despite Hecuba’s taunts that the Trojan war has nothing to do her. 

It’s a scene of intense intimacy, threat, and startling familiarity. Though it mirrors a stylishly ritualistic earlier scene in which Paris chooses Aphrodite (Helen), Tippett’s women have no mythic veil to throw off, no excess rhetoric, and little in the way of pathos. In James Conway’s taut production they feel like 21st century creatures, as do the troubled leading male characters and the chorus of slave girls who break the tension with an uncomfortable truth: they couldn’t give a monkeys who wins the war, rape and death will follow. In this confrontational, fast-paced drama, Tippett shuffles multiple viewpoints to disarming effect. There are not two sides in this battle, but a crowd of individuals in search of meaning in their own ‘bitter charade’, networked by a sort of Twitter-feed in the shape of Hermes (a nimble Adrian Dwyer).

Much of the work’s raw immediacy, comes, of course, from its music. From the crackling trumpets, and defiant opening chorus to the swarming violas that greet the news that Paris will grow up to kill his father, Priam, to the ravishing duet between Helen and Paris (a charismatic Nicholas Sharratt, whose voice is a remarkable match) this is a dancing, dynamic score driven by restless invention. Michael Rosewell conducted the orchestra behind a screen, the only practical solution in this space but a shame given their demanding, virtuoso parts: Agon was the inspiration, and Tippett uses solo instruments as voices in the drama, each woman, for example, has their own instrumental ‘daemon’ which felt disembodied.

Not everything in the opera works, and not everything was well done: the prolix Act 2 scene in Achilles’s tent sags, and Achilles’s long, sustained songs pushed Charne Rochford beyond comfortable limits. There were patches where excessive piano made it feel like a rehearsal, and the opera’s final measures lose direction, though Roderick Earle gave the increasingly bewildered Priam a poignant dignity. The charge traditionally levelled at Tippett that his libretti were wordy and over-discursive doesn’t stick here: despite shades of TS Eliot and Brechtian self-consciousness, the story-telling is remarkably clear. We feel Tippett’s radical innocence at work in his forensic examination of cause and effect, shuttling back and forth through time, his gaze as frankly curious and wide-eyed as the boy Paris (the heart-stopping Thomas Delgado-Little).

Anna Fleischle’s bestial-inspired designs brought rich texture to the stark staging, from the stunning feather headdresses (shades of Alexander McQueen) to the antlers used for fighting. The Linbury is in dire need of improvement, and this grand work needs a bigger stage – but the fact that it spoke so vividly in a cave-like pit is a measure of the work’s power, and the performers’ conviction.

King Priam continues to tour until 27 May. See englishtouringopera.org.uk

Photo: Richard Hubert Smith/ETO