Friday 14 February 2014

King Priam, English Touring Opera, 13 February 2014

Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House

King Priam – Roderick Earle
Hecuba – Laure Meloy
Hector – Grant Doyle
Andromache – Camilla Roberts
Paris – Nicholas Sharratt
Helen – Niamh Kelly
Hermes – Adrian Dwyer
Achilles – Charne Rochford
Patroclus – Piotr Lempa
Old Man – Andrew Slater
Nurse – Clarissa Meek
Young Guard – Adam Tunnicliffe
Paris (boy) – Thomas Delgado-Little
Hunters – Stuart Haycock, Johnny Herford, Henry Manning

James Conway (director)
Anna Fleischle (designs)
Guy Hoare (lighting)

Orchestra of English Touring Opera
Chorus of English Touring Opera
Michael Rosewell (conductor)
Sir Michael Tippett’s music has suffered a fate typical, though by no means always the case, for composers following their deaths. However, there are signs that a period of relative neglect, despite the continued advocacy of musicians such as the late Sir Colin Davis, might now be giving way to a reassessment. For instance, the Wigmore Hall has been putting on a Tippett retrospective, laudable for far more than its courage in breaking away from the annual anniversary grind. I speak from a position of considerable ignorance myself, the only other Tippett opera I have seen in the theatre being The Midsummer Marriage (Royal Opera, 2005); my concert and recorded music exposure has not been particularly great either. I am delighted to report, though, that the ever-valiant English Touring Opera’s new staging of King Priam proved a triumphant success, making me keen to hear more, despite having been somewhat nonplussed by what I experienced as the blandness of The Midsummer Marriage, not to mention its problematical dramaturgy. (It seems more often than not to be audiences’ favourite Tippett opera, but I doubt that it will ever be mine.)

King Priam is perhaps, above all, an opera of great ambition, often fulfilled. The interiority of much of the dramatic conflict in some senses recalls A Child of Our Time, but whereas it proves, for some of us, near fatal in that oratorio, here, at least for the most part, it offers an alternative standpoint from which to consider the workings of fate and politics. Interestingly, director, James Conway views the material very differently, remarking in his programme note, ‘It has been commented that Priam is not an opera about war, but about choice. I am not so sure that this says what is needful. … Choice, it seems to me right now, is not a theme, any more than Fate is a theme. War and beauty are themes.’ Beauty, yes, I thought – but less so war, even in Conway’s own production. Perhaps that simply goes to show that staging and work alike offer the possibility for different understandings, irrespective to an extent of ‘intention’.

Certainly Tippett’s score, in Iain Farrington’s excellent reduced orchestration, came across with visceral power and beauty alike, for which great credit must go both to ETO’s orchestra and Michael Rosewell’s wise direction. There were a few occasions when ensemble faltered, but they were quickly rectified and frankly of marginal importance. More than once, I was put in mind of some of Henze’s roughly contemporary writing, for instance in Der Prinz von Homburg, though I suspect the similarity in timbres may arise more from shared Stravinskian roots as ‘influence’ in either direction. And yet, whilst some music might occasionally put one in mind of other composers, the dramatic use to which it is put seemed to me very much Tippett’s own – and certainly did in what seemed to me an estimably idiomatic performance. I was heartened after the event to read David Clarke’s New Grove article upon the composer, which said much the same thing with specific reference to Priam’s encounter with his second son, Paris, whom he had ordered slain as a baby and does not yet recognise:

The instantaneous – almost cinematic – shift of subject from Priam to Paris in the first bar of the example is articulated by the division of orchestral forces and the abrupt switch of pitch collections. Yet while the vertical conflation of tonic, dominant and subdominant triads of E-flat in the initial, defining sonority of Paris’s music could be seen as a further Stravinskian touch, the disposition behind it – to intensify the expressive potential of tonal resources rather than interpose an ironizing distance – is entirely Tippett’s.

Moreover, the clearly Brechtian reworking – Oliver Soden’s valuable note makes reference to Tippett’s recent encounter with the work of the Berliner Ensemble – s of the Iliad is again unmistakeably personal, and, one senses, a definite inspiration to Conway’s staging. In that connection, it is worth mentioning the sense of kinship I noted with Alexander Goehr’s Promised End, given its premiere by ETO (again with Conway directing). Anna Fleischle’s designs and Guy Hoare’s lighting assisted greatly not only with the screwing up of dramatic tension but also the differentiation of place between Troy and the Greek camp. A real sense was conveyed of Tippett’s mediation between Homer and the present. And the final scene brought a splendid reminiscence of – and indeed, Brechtian distancing from – Boris Godunov, again whether ‘intentional’ or otherwise.

Roderick Earle’s portrayal of the title role played no mean part in accomplishing that, of course. Dignified, touching, and with considerable power, this drew one in further and further as time went on: Tippett vanquishing Brecht, as it were. Nicholas Sharratt was likewise splendid as ‘playboy’ (Priam’s own term) Paris, narcissistic vainglory and compelling attraction two sides of the same coin. Thomas Delgado-Little did a truly excellent job as Paris’s younger self: one of the most self-assured and dramatically convincing performances I have seen from a boy treble. Grant Doyle offered a properly masculine foil as Hector: here, at least, I could sense what Conway said about war. Charne Rochford’s Achilles seemed strained (miscast?) earlier on, intonation wavering considerably, but improved greatly, the scene between him and Priam moving and fatally – in more than one sense – menacing. Laure Meloy and Camilla Roberts both gave sterling performances, as Hecuba and Andromache respectively, whilst Niamh Kelly succeeded to an excellent degree in portraying the strange, chilling emptiness of Helen. (The kiss between her and Priam certainly unsettled in the best way.) All other members of the cast impressed in one way or another. Perhaps especially notable were Adrian Dwyer’s properly mercurial (sorry!) Hermes, Andrew Slater’s stentorian Old Guard, Clarissa Week’s knowingly wise Nurse, and Adam Tunnicliffe’s earnest, finely-sung Young Guard. As in all the best company performances, the whole was greater, considerably greater, than the sum of the parts.

I was delighted to see Kasper Holten in the audience and trust that this will have made him consider the possibilities on the main stage as well as in the Linbury for Tippett and other post-war composers, be they British or not. As I wrote a little while ago, when sharing clips from a BBC documentary about the Hamburg premiere of Alexander Goehr’s Arden Must Die, made in those dim-and-distant days, inconceivable to most of us, when BBC television cared about such things: ‘Rolf Liebermann's words are especially instructive. As Hamburg Intendant, he felt it artistically necessary to commision an opera from Goehr; the composer's nationality was supremely irrelevant to him. Covent Garden, kindly take note! Liebermann commissioned no fewer than twenty-six operas during his Hamburg tenure; others include Henze's Der Prinz von Homburg and Penderecki's The Devils. Opera and art in general must never consign themselves to the museum. That way they will succeed only in signing their death warrants.’ We need to hear Henze, Goehr, Birtwistle, Zimmermann, Stockhausen, Dallapiccola, Nono, Lachenmann, Peter Maxwell Davies, Messiaen, Sciarrino, Pascal Dusapin, et al., et al.: the list is almost endless, and it is endless before we even begin to consider the fates of Gluck, Rameau, Haydn, Weber, and so many other composers from earlier eras; what we certainly do not need are any more Verdi, Donizetti, or Massenet, to name but three current, bizarre obsessions of the Royal Opera and many other companies. Three cheers, then, to ETO for both its enterprise and achievement!

ETO’ s current season also includes Paul Bunyan and The Magic Flute. Not every work will be performed in every venue, but the company will perform between now and the end of May in London, Truro, Poole, Wolverhampton, Snape, Cheltenham, Leicester, Sheffield, York, Canterbury, Norwich Crawley, Coventry, Exeter, Durham, Perth, and Cambridge. To read more about ETO and forthcoming performances, please click here.