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Stephen Eddins
Allmusic.com, May 2009

King Priam (1961), alone among Tippett’s five mature operas, is based on existing source material (the “Iliad,” primarily), and that likely accounts for the fact that it has a narrative coherence atypical of the composer, who wrote all his own librettos. The characters and the story are familiar, and Tippett tells it from the perspective of the Trojan royal family. In spite of the scope of its theme and the immensity of the war in which it is set, this is very much an intimate family drama, focusing on the (consistently unfortunate) choices that the characters make, which ultimately lead to their own destruction, as well as the loss of the war. Tippett’s austere second mature opera could hardly be stylistically more different from his first, the lyrically effusive The Midsummer Marriage (1952). In keeping with the theme of war and the ancient setting of the story, the music of King Priam is brutal and angular and can be rough going for anyone looking for reassuring consonance to relieve the characters’ turmoil. Tippett’s orchestration is exceptionally eccentric, and while it is sometimes striking, as in his use of a solo guitar to accompany most of Achilles’ music, its logic is not often apparent. His soundworld here is distinctive, but on first hearing it’s largely impenetrable. King Priam is frequently cited by critics as Tippett’s masterpiece and repeated exposure may be required to reveal its full impact.

This 1985 production from Kent Opera features a stylized production by Nicholas Hytner, but it lacks the director’s usual decisiveness and clarity. Hytner and designer David Fielding place their actors in relatively small, often claustrophobic spaces, and while the intent is certainly to emphasize the intimacy of the human drama rather than the story’s epic dimensions, the result frequently just looks dinky and done on the cheap. The randomness of the costuming further weakens the visual effect. Certain things make sense, such as having some of the women in “conventional” ancient looking robes, and Hermes, the messenger of the gods, is painted gold, but lots of other characters wear modern trench coats, and the warriors look like they were outfitted at an Army-Navy surplus store. Hytner elicits a naturalness of acting that’s above the level frequently seen in opera houses. The vocal performances are consistently very fine. These are not soloists with especially large voices, but in this studio production with ample miking, they come across well, and they sing with admirable clarity, negotiating the jagged lines with precision, excellent intonation, and fearless passion. Rodney Macann is a sympathetic King Priam, with an especially warm and ingratiating baritone. As Hecuba, Janet Price sings with regal command. Omar Ebrahim and Howard Haskin are especially persuasive as the antagonistic brothers Hector and Paris. Christopher Gillett makes a fleet-voiced and whimsical Hermes. Special note should be made of treble Nana Antwi-Nyanin, who is clear-voiced as Paris as a boy. Tippett’s opera and this production are not likely to have broad appeal to traditional opera audiences, but should be of interest to fans of adventurous modern opera and unconventional staging.



Parsons
American Record Guide, December 2008

Kent Opera’s production of Sir Michael Tippett’s relating of episodes from the Trojan War as a metaphor for pacifism expressed through psychoanalysis was filmed in 1985 for television. This is its first DVD release.

As is usual in Tippett’s operas, the story is a high-flown, often convoluted text set to music that is not particularly grateful to the ear or the voice, but somehow oddly unites for a satisfying whole in telling its story. One may not agree with (or even understand) Tippett’s complex philosophy. In telling the story of the death of the Trojan King Priam, Tippett has chosen a bare-bones, acerbic, atonal style of music, barren of comfort.

The Kent Opera production (I think it was intended for touring) is as bare-boned and barren as the music. Some white walls and a floor strewn with dirt, lots of white veils, barbed wire, and costumes of a modern period, almost all in white and black with a touch of modern body armor are all to be seen. At least some of the court ladies get blood red and sky blue gowns, and Queen Hecuba gets a modern blue street coat. The only color the men get is blood itself. Frighteningly realistic acting sweeps the opera along.

Macann portrays a serious and dignified ruler, a victim of circumstances and his own weakness. But it is the contrasting sons of Priam who give the opera its drama and the production its best performances. The strikingly handsome Ebrahim reveals the savage monster that lurks beneath his beauty, singing with strength and powerful intent. The cool and collected Paris of Haskin is more subtle in his cruelty and less powerful in his singing.

I presume that Tippett meant Achilles to be a parody—a lazy, overweight lout—but it fits the story uncomfortably, though Jenkins sings handsomely and captures that intended persona perfectly. The gold-painted Hermes (Messenger of Death) of Gillett is sung with tonal clarity and almost sadistic relish. There is plenty praise to go around for the singing of Price, Walker, and Mason, too. Enid Hartle and Richard Suart effectively dispatch their duties as Greek chorus. Norrington (in his pre-period instrument days) leads the modern score with a balance of cool intent and savagery.






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10:26:05 AM, 22 August 2014
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