We arrive with expectations high as this is the festival finale performance. However, this is not a full opera, but a sung performance; with the Britten Sinfonia and Brighton Festival Chorus taking centre stage. The audience is scattered around an unfortunately half-empty house which is a shame as this rarely performed piece deserves a wider audience.
A swift read of Sian Edwards’ biography confirms that we are in very experienced hands, which is proven as she conducts with a very sure hand. Sian is not perturbed when at the end of Act I, the audience gets up to leave, mistakenly thinking the interval has arrived. La Maestra merely turns round to inform them in a firm but polite voice that Act Two is starting, so everyone hurries sheepishly back to their seats!
King Priam was composed, by Sir Michael Tippett, in the sixties and it’s all about edginess not fluffy romantic ballads. There is no love song between Paris and Troy, which is a love so all encompassing that cities will go to war over it. The nearest we come is when Achilles sings romantically of their homeland to Patroclus, hinting at their homosexual love, accompanied by a spiky Spanish guitar. This opera is all about difficult choices. Priam must choose to whether to kill his infant son, when he hears the prophecy that this baby will be the death of him. Paris must choose the most beautiful of three goddesses. Whatever happens he will annoy two goddesses; not a position I’d like to be in.
The highlight is at the start of Act Three which depicts a three-way battle of the consciences between Helen Louise Mott, Hecuba Janice Watson and Andromache Jane Irwin. It stops just short of being an out and out catfight between the devoted wife Andromache and temptress Helen. This trio supply a lot of the fun, as when they double up as the three goddesses for the Judgement of Paris. With a cast of this calibre, it is difficult to single out one performer for individual praise, but Brindley Sherratt, in the title role, excels as the tormented king who carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. His majestic bass voice fully conveys the emotions with which he wrestles.
It certainly helps to be familiar with Homer’s Iliad beforehand as whilst this opera may start slowly, it gains momentum as fate unwinds inexorably and the body count grows. The full show apparently gets very gory. Perhaps by omitting the more sensational visuals, we are able to concentrate on the psychological anguish and timeless themes. “Life is indeed a bitter charade”. It would be fun to see a full staging with all the blood and gore from the dismembered and defiled bodies of the slain heroes. With elements of adultery, homosexuality and murder (the basic elements for an Eastenders storyline), this is quality entertainment, but not for the faint-hearted.