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King Priam

Michael Tippett
English Touring Opera
Sheffield Lyceum

King Priam Credit: Richard Hubert Smith
King Priam Credit: Richard Hubert Smith
King Priam Credit: Richard Hubert Smith

Tippett was a conscientious objector who was imprisoned during WW2. He made a life choice which had its consequences.

He re-tells the story of the Fall of Troy from the perspective of King Priam, a relatively minor character in The Iliad who chooses to spare his son Paris’s life despite a prophetic warning that this will lead to his own death.

Other choices are made in the course of the action. Paris offers the golden apple to Aphrodite, which alienates the other goddesses, Athena and Hera, and leads inevitably to the abduction of Helen and the Trojan War.

It is the gleaming Shield of Achilles that dominates the stage setting. A higher level suggests the walls of Troy, and a platform provides a throne area for Priam, which is simply transformed to Achilles’ tent by the addition of some drapery.

The Trojan camp is represented by distant twinkling lights. Head dresses and helmets symbolically represent the immortal characters and help to distinguish between the main protagonists, particularly in the battle scenes. The soldiers fight, not with swords, but with antlers, which are interlocked to suggest the struggle of rutting stags.

Tippett’s music is rich in tonalities. The word ‘War’ is given a complex and thrilling setting and Achilles’ battle cry, which signals his return to the fight, drowns out the premature Trojan celebration following the death of Patroclus.

The tone of the final act is quite different. Hecuba and Andromache round on Helen, calling her a whore and urging her to return to her husband. Priam is consumed by grief after the death of Hector, realising that his decision to spare Paris has led to much more than his own death. It has toppled an empire.

In this large ensemble production, there are at least a dozen major roles, all of which are performed with passion, commitment and high quality singing. As Priam, Roderick Earle, carries the main emotional burden, Grant Doyle (Hector) and Charne Rochford (Achilles) give powerful performances as the main opponents, and Nicholas Sharratt brings complexity to the quieter role of Paris.

Niamh Kelly is a stunning Helen, confident and assured of her own beauty, alluring and unrepentant. Camilla Roberts (Andromache) finds a fine anger as she rails against Helen after the death of Hector.

The full and half choruses are performed with vigour and a rich, satisfying tone, and the small chorus, Andrew Slater as the Old Man, Clarissa Meek as the Nurse, and Adam Tunnicliffe as the Young Guard, add a more thoughtful, reflective dimension to the action. The orchestra, conducted by Michael Rosewell, shows great versatility with many effective instrumental solos accompanying the singing.

There are a number of moving set piece scenes in the opera, which derive from Homer’s original. The tent scene between Achilles and Patroclus shows the bond of love and friendship that exists between the two men. Priam humiliates himself when he goes to Achilles’ tent to beg for the return of Hector’s defiled body, and ends by drinking wine with his enemy, who has also suffered a huge loss.

In an interesting catalogue, Priam prophetically lists the deaths and other horrors that are to come: Achilles will be killed by Paris; Priam will be assassinated in his citadel; the Trojan women will be enslaved.

Tippett’s pacifism is indicated in several references to mirrors towards the end of the opera. The mirrors reflect the future as well as the past. In war, Tippett suggests, there are no winners, only losers.

Reviewer: Velda Harris