Antlers, feathers and Roderick Earle. We've been this way before, surely? Vague recollections... Then, at the interval, a friend reminded me that the same elements had graced English Touring Opera's forgettable ‘King Lear' commission from Alexander Goehr, Promised End, little more than three years ago. Selective memory, great survival tool though it is, can be a risky thing in this line of work.
Thankfully, Michael Tippett's Greek tragedy is opera of a higher order. King Priam may have been eclipsed at its launch by the contemporaneous premiere of Britten's War Requiem, but it remains a major achievement whose anti-war message is a match for its more celebrated rival.
Priam, King of Troy and father of the valiant Hector, orders the execution of his younger son, Paris, following a prophesy that the boy will grow to be the instrument of his death. Paris is saved, Hector dies in battle at the hand of Achilles, and human nature takes its course.
Director James Conway is a hero for daring to send this near-forgotten opera out on a national tour and not stinting on the production. For much of King Priam's duration the Linbury stage at the Royal Opera House is filled to bursting with humanity, whether named characters or the ever-present (and quite marvellous) ETO Chorus.
Anna Fleischle's designs are, like the opera itself, at once ambitious and clumsy. There are parallels with Tippett's stark music in her brutish set, a monochrome array of rectangular blocks offset by a single lump of jagged beaten metal, while her elaborate costumes somehow reflect his self-penned libretto: wayward, ungainly and often ridiculous.
At least the unintended laughs are respite from doom and gloom. It's a pity no one felt able to take Tippett aside and point out that a line from Homer's Iliad cannot be rendered as "Hector will want his bath the moment he gets in from fighting" without it sounding as though he's popping home from the gym for a cup of tea and a sit down.
It falls to the score, unsparing in its rhetorical immediacy, to convey the dignity and darkness. The large orchestra is eked out in small doses, often one instrument at a time in the form of obbligato accompaniment to a character's declamation. In purely musical terms the opera's tit-for-tat spiral of vengeance plunges towards oblivion and leaves no doubt that Tippett's subject is not so much the pity of war as its futility.
The cast is terrific. Charne Rochford is a forthright Achilles, his tenor voice more heroic than is usual in British music but nerve-shredding in his battle-cry, while Nicholas Sharratt's ringing Paris and Grant Doyle's noble Hector both transcend the unfortunate costumes they're obliged to wear. The women are equally fine: Laure Meloy and Camilla Roberts suffer eloquently as Hecuba and Andromache while Niamh Kelly presents the beautiful Helen as a figure of steely grace.
Conway characterises Tippett's trio of narrator figures through vividly conceived performances by Adam Tunnicliffe, Andrew Slater and Clarissa Meek. The young tenor Adrian Dwyer makes a striking Hermes, the divine messenger who flits between the Greek and Trojan camps, and there is a performance of extraordinary self-possession from young Thomas Delgado-Little, who plays Paris as a boy.
As for Roderick Earle, he completely inhabits the taxing title role of a noble yet tormented man. He is well partnered by Michael Rosewell who conducts Tippett's challenging score forcefully, yet with insight and élan, at the helm of an attacking orchestra (apparently slimmed down for this tour, but pretty emphatic even so) that responds to him in kind.
- King Priam tours Britain from Perth to Truro until the end of May (details here). Catch it if you can.