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RODERIC DUNNETT on Tippett's opera King Priam


Mark Le Brocq as Paris. ENO King Priam revival. Photo (c) 1999 Bill RaffertyMichael Tippett's second opera, King Priam, was first staged by Sam Wanamaker in l962, as part of the Festival to celebrate the opening of the state-of-the art new Coventry Cathedral, complete with Graham Sutherland tapestry, John Piper stained glass window and Jacob Epstein statue (in the ruins of the old St.Michael's cathedral.)

Bombed to bits in the Luftwaffe raids of l940, and aptly twinned with Dresden and Stalingrad, Coventry came to epitomise the pointless ravages of war, and the urgent need for global reconciliation. It symbolises the fact to this day with its worldwide ministry (or fellowship) of the Cross of Nails.

The festival took as its Leitmotif the theme of peace, and generated two, indeed arguably three, musical masterpieces : Britten's War Requiem - brilliantly harnessing the war poetry of Wilfred Owen (' My theme is war, and the pity of war'); Sir Arthur Bliss's choral anthology The Beatitudes; and Tippett's King Priam.

While Britten's work, with its symbolic uniting of three warring European nations (British, German and Russian) in its trio of soloists (Fischer-Dieskau, Pears and Vishnevskaya), won universal critical acclaim, Tippett's opera drew strength and conviction from the composer's own powerful retelling, in graphically telescoped form, of the Mycenaean alliance's siege of Troy and the ultimate destruction of the city, drawing upon the accounts of Homer, Virgil and the ancient Greek dramatists.

Tippett's operas are all, to one degree or another, ingenious forms of 'myth'. Yet because he has concocted in King Priam a beautifully fine-tuned, economical version of a legend already familiar to virtually every child over age of ten, this opera (for all the paraphernalia of The Ice Break and New Year, or the alluring Jungian mumbo-jumbo and gorgeous lyricism of The Midsummer Marriage and The Knot Garden), is not merely dramatically strong and abruptly arresting, but arguably the most 'accessible' of them all.

The Greeks themselves were well versed in such retellings of Homer's stories. The ordinary people of imperial 5th century Athens - not just a moneyed elite - used to pack the Dionysus Theatre to the gills for public performances of Aeschylus's The Myrmidons (the tale of the heroic lovers Patroclus and Achilles) or Euripides' Hecuba, Andromache, and The Trojan Women, which dwelt on the tragic consequences of war, in a male-dominated warrior society, for women with all too little power to influence it.

Long denied its rightful place in the repertoire, Tippett's King Priam has gradually come to take its rightful place alongside the great 20th century operas, thanks largely to two outstanding British productions in recent years : one by Nicholas Hytner, staged by the immensely successful Kent Opera company (needlessly axed by Arts Council cutbacks in the early 90s); and the widely-hailed production, with Andrew Shore superb in the title role, currently running at the Coliseum.

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Copyright © Roderic Dunnett, October 28th 1999


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