English Touring Opera’s King Priam
28 May 2014
English Touring Opera’s modern and challenging production of the dazzling opera King Priam, little known but a compelling centre of the modern repertoire, made for a brilliant, absorbing night at the theatre.
It is Homer’s Iliad, the ancient legend of the fallen heroes, but this time compelled along by magnificent music and lifted from its familiar form into a dynamic drama. Composer Michael Tippett takes the audience back in time through the haunting echoes of music and pain, to the origin of story-telling, to the beginning of our own civilisation. Michael Rosewell, the conductor holding the whole thing together with astonishing skill at the Cambridge Arts Theatre staging on 27 May, has a lot to be proud of with his thrilling music.
The set is magnificent. Designer Anna Fleischle goes with the elemental dynamic of Tippet’ incantatory music with her rough Bronze Age warriors, resplendent in high feathered headgear and mysterious ritual robes. King Priam appears first, (sung with incomparable conviction by veteran international singer Roderick Earle) clad in a splendid vast iridescent outfit of priestly dignity. His wife Hecuba (a role rendered with fierce authentic ferocity by Laure Meloy) is distraught. Her dreams trouble her and the Old Seer is sent for. He tells the royal couple that their new baby son will be the cause of his father’s death. Proudly resolute, Hecuba determines to kill the infant but he is saved by a shepherd and next appears as a young boy who then joins his parents at court. His brother, rival Hector and he don’t get on. The eldest son is a warrior and family man, a loving husband to Andromache and father to their child and sung here with impressive nuance by baritone Grant Doyle. Paris, the newly discovered brother is a devastatingly handsome playboy (a dashing tenor, Nicholas Sharratt is the poster boy for this production) has soon nipped off to Sparta and borne away the fabulous Helen, wife of Menelaus, and brought her back to Troy. As the seer foresaw, he was trouble from the start.
The scene is now set for the invasion of the Greeks, to claim back their Queen. Helen is vain and beautiful - lovely-looking Niamh Kelly is a wonderfully vacuous but compelling adulteress. Proud of her centre stage role in all the killing, Helen is dismayed when her mother-in-law Hecuba tells her the reason for the war is not her, but the Greeks desire to conquer their city. Brutality is now let loose. Achilles, provoked by his friend Patrocholus’ death at the hands of warrior Hector, sings a blood curdling war cry that chills the Trojans – and the audience. Roused from his famous sulk, he roars forth to kill gallant Hector and leaves his heroic wife Andromache a grieving widow. Camilla Roberts in this role is a showstopper. She conveys the anguish of the helpless wife with heart wrenching musicality. In a week where a young singer in Richard Strauss’s Rosencavalier has attracted critical comment for not being slim enough, the glorious Rubenesque forms of Andromache and Hercuba, particularly when they convert to goddesses in a fantasy scene of the Judgement of Paris, are entirely exquisite. Looking at them was like viewing a painting or tableau of astonishing classical beauty and both, Camilla Roberts especially, conveyed womanly grace and classical elegance.
The music, modern in concept and atonally un-hummable, (no one will come out of this production whistling the intermezzo) nevertheless almost overwhelmed the audience with its dramatic range and must have been a demanding challenge for the singers. The orchestra worked hard, and some of the tympani were astonishingly vigorous – crashing about with six sets of giant drums is a work out in itself but they were essential in the creation of atmosphere.
Tippett tells a timeless story in this opera. It can only end one way, badly, as the heroes face death and their heartbroken women prepare for a life of exile and slavery. But `Hermes’ the messenger of the gods has the final word ‘O divine music, melt our hearts, renew our love’. King Priam’s deadly choices have brought about the destruction of his entire civilisation. In the final scene, it is only Helen, the embodiment of love desire and beauty, who survives and endures, and it is to Helen alone King Priam will speak before his violent death at the hands of Achilles’ son.
English Touring Opera are performing The Magic Flute at Cambridge Arts Theatre from 29-31 May and Paul Bunyan on 28 May.