King Priam, English Touring Opera, ETO, Linbury Studio, ROH, February 2014Posted on 16 February 2014
This opera is all over in two and half hours including an interval, which is extraordinary because the story is HUGE. This is the Trojan War, told from the perspective of Troy.
Act I gives us the background, starting with King Priam’s dilemma on whether to let his baby son Paris live, or have him killed to avoid the fate foretold by a blind seer. As father and king he is torn between deciding for life, or death. He ordains death but is later delighted to welcome his son home after it turns out a shepherd rescued him and brought him up as his own son.
The first two parts of Act I form essentially the story given in the lost play Paris Alexandros by Euripides, the first part of a trilogy ending with Women of Troy, but there is a third part to this Act in Sparta where Paris makes love to Helen, and is then faced with the choice between Athene, Hera and Aphrodite. Forced to reject two goddesses his fate is sealed, as is the fate of Troy.
The composer, Michael Tippett, who wrote his own libretto, manages all this in a single Act, before plunging us straight into the central story of the Iliad, with Achilles and Patroclus. As Achilles sulks in his fury against the Greek leader, Agamemnon, Patroclus dons the hero’s armour to go into battle, is killed by Priam’s eldest son, Hector, and the Act ends with Achilles’ raging determination to avenge his death. After an interval, comes a third Act of further vengeance, contemplation, dispute among the Women of Troy, and the death of Priam.
I mention all this because if you don’t know the opera, it is riveting, and James Conway’s production delivers a drama and clarity so often missing in modern directorial perversions of the composer’s intentions. Wonderful set and costume designs by Anna Fleischle, with excellent lighting by Guy Hoare, and the orchestra under Michael Rosewell beautifully conveys the power and emotion of Tippett’s music. As Hermes sings in Act III about the death of Priam the music takes on a remarkably ethereal feel, adumbrating a world beyond.
With staging that brings the characters very much to life, plus stupendous singing and wonderful diction, the side-titles are rendered almost superfluous. Roderick Earle was utterly convincing as a noble and strong-voiced Priam, later in huge sadness regretting his lack of determination to kill the baby Paris himself, yet can you really kill one son to save another from the ravages of a losing war? After he and Hecuba leave the stage after the first scene, the lovely interlude with the nurse, blind seer, and the young guard was beautifully sung by Clarissa Meek, Andrew Slater and Adam Tunnicliffe, each very strong in their own role, and Andrew Slater was a wonderfully powerful presence throughout.
Charne Rochford was a gloriously passionate Achilles, Grant Doyle a superbly strong Hector, and Nicholas Sharratt a well-nuanced Paris of firm voice, with Niamh Kelly a lovely Helen, who glides through the drama in impervious, ethereal beauty. And not to mention the fine stage presence and wonderfully musical singing of Thomas Delgado-Little in the treble role of the young Paris.
This and the ENO’s revival of Peter Grimes are the opera treats of the year so far, and if you missed it at the Linbury Studio, where there are further performances on Feb 15 and 18, it goes on tour to: Lighthouse, Poole, 15th Mar; Snape Maltings Concert Hall 29th Mar; Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, 2nd Apr; Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, 12th Apr; The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, 23rd Apr; Norwich Theatre Royal, 26th Apr; Exeter Northcott Theatre, 17th May; Gala Theatre, Durham, 20th May; Cambridge Arts Theatre, 27th May.