Music and Vision homepage




RODERIC DUNNETT on Tippett's opera King Priam


 << Continued from page 1 

John Daszak as Achilles. ENO King Priam revival. Photo (c) 1999 Bill Rafferty
John Daszak as Achilles. All photos in this article by Bill Rafferty

Overseeing English National Opera's production of King Priam is the gifted Irish-born director and designer, Tom Cairns, who is no stranger to 20th Century opera and musical : his credits range from Birtwistle's The Second Mrs Kong (at Glyndebourne) and Janacek's Jenufa (for Opera North) to Stephen Sondheim's brilliantly successful Sunday in the Park with George at the National Theatre.

Cairns has also picked up several awards for his recent television work for BBC2 (notably the John McGahern adaptation Amongst Women, and Jim Broadbent's A Brief Encounter), and sees a connection :

'There's an almost filmic quality to the way Tippett has selected from the Troy story, which I think is one of its great strengths. It's incredibly focused.

'In each scene Tippett manages to distil the core of the myth, or narrative, and deliver it with a very striking, almost classical spareness and economy, both musically and dramatically. It's undoubtedly strong on story - he really does take his audience on a journey with him. And every scene has a definite pace, a rhythm, a dynamism.

'Tippett's writing is remarkably spare in places - for instance, in Act II, where the Trojan War rages and he leaves out the orchestral strings entirely, focusing on brass and woodwind, and writing some very harsh, stark, acerbic music - only to bring the strings back, to ravishing effect, at the start of Act III.'

Much of the opera's characterisation hinges on his use of dramatic monologue, Andrew Shore as Priam. ENO King Priam revival. Photo (c) 1999 Bill Raffertyin which the central figures - Achilles, Hecuba, Hector, and above all, Priam himself - face up to the agonising choices each has to make. Often these recitatives and arias are accompanied just by a solo instrument (violin for Hecuba, cello for Andromache, guitar for Achilles), or by a concentrated small ensemble.

Three of the characters form a kind of Greek chorus - an old man, or soothayer; an old woman, or nurse; and a young guard. This enables Tippett not only to maintain the story narrative and link the scenes (which cover events spanning some thirty years) but also to comment on the action and draw conclusions from it. The principal women double as the three goddesses who appear in the 'Golden Apple' scene at the end of Act I, where Paris makes his fatal choice. And Tippett also introduces Hermes (Mercury), as not merely a link between Gods and humans, but also (in Jungian terms) as some kind of mediator between the concious and unconscious world.

But the key figure in the opera, sung by Andrew Shore, is Priam himself : 'Only at the end,' explains Cairns, 'does Priam stop blaming himself for the decisions he has made. He reconciles himself to having made the choices he did, and embraces his own death serenely (- quite the opposite of Virgil's grisly account). By that stage he has changed, and learned.

'It's as if Tippett were saying that the only right way to live is to listen to your own heart. He captures that in a marvellous moment in the opera, where the nurse says to him something like, 'Listen to the soul's echo', and an almost angelic chorus sound is heard - as if it came from the airwaves. As long as you listen to the best part of yourself, not the negative aspect, he seems to imply, then you will have no reason for regret. It's a very transcending, beautiful moment.'


Copyright © Roderic Dunnett, October 28th 1999


This highly acclaimed ENO London production of King Priam, shared with Opera North and de Vlaamse Opera, Antwerp, runs in repertory at English National Opera until 5th November. Further performances: Fri 29 Oct, Wed 3 Nov, Fri 5 Nov. Seats available at all prices from GBP 5-45. Telephone the ENO Box Office on +44 (0)20-7632-8300).

 << Music & Vision homepage        Grande Messe des Morts >>