Why is Tippett's King Priam so difficult to love?

English Touring Opera shows it to its best effect, but I still found myself enjoying their Paul Bunyan more

1 March 2014

9:00 AM

1 March 2014

9:00 AM

King Priam; Paul Bunyan

English Touring Opera, Linbury Studio Theatre, now touring

The difference between lovable, likable and admirable is perhaps more significant in the operatic world than in other artistic spheres — and is often, alas, translatable directly into all-important box-office receipts. The most ambitious production in English Touring Opera’s spring season provides an opportunity to see where Michael Tippett’s second opera, King Priam, fits on the spectrum. Premièred in Coventry in 1962, one day before Britten’s War Requiem, it’s rarely staged but often spoken of in tones of hushed awe; and it is undoubtedly a remarkable work: spare, concise, fierce and often irresistible in its conviction.

After the strange, sprawling, socks-and-sandals allegory of Tippett’s first opera The Midsummer Marriage, the composer’s second libretto, though still occasionally clunky and didactic, is relatively economical. It convincingly distils a chunk of the Iliad into three short acts, whose ten scenes are punctuated by Brechtian interludes. Out go the Greek gods; in comes cool, ineluctable fate, whose predetermined course the characters, in a state of knowing resignation, can do little to alter. The Midsummer Marriage’s musical radiance is replaced largely by austerity, with much stark brass writing and percussion. But the score, for all its integrity and undeniable moments of beauty, feels a little dated, grey and earnest, the drama uneven. It’s admirable, yes, but ultimately rather difficult to like, let alone love.

There’s plenty to admire in ETO’s endeavour, too, whose limited resources necessarily impose a further austerity on the piece — an austerity amplified in the bald discomfort of the Royal Opera House’s much-unloved Linbury Studio Theatre. (Experiences will be different as the production sets off on a tour that lasts until the end of May.) Little is lost in Iain Farringdon’s sensitive reduction of Tippett’s orchestration, and Michael Rosewell, here hidden with his players at the back of the stage, conducts with impressive authority. Anna Fleischle’s set features an upstage wall with walkway and central rock on a block of steps, which serves as a focal point for both the action and additional touches of scenery (clever use of sheets for Achilles’ tent). With elaborate horned and feathered headdresses and scattered fur, the costumes captured an appropriate sense of the primitive, but all looked a little thrown together and am-dram.

Some of the weaker moments in James Conway’s direction — and in the work itself — were saved by the sheer commitment of the large cast, which joined together in chorus to coruscating effect: the primal war cry that concludes Act II was properly chilling. There were fine individual performances, too, not least from Grant Doyle handsome-sounding Hector, Nicholas Sharratt’s preening Paris and Niamh Kelly’s languidly seductive Helen. Laure Meloy was outstanding in Hecuba’s entreaty to Camilla Roberts’s noble Andromache. Roderick Earle’s Priam felt woolly and ill-focused early on, but found his form in the final scene. Charne Rochford, though, ploughed through Achilles’ lines at an unvariegated and uningratiating fortissimo.

I found myself enjoying the tour’s second production, of Britten and Auden’s incongruous operetta Paul Bunyan, rather more. It’s a brittle but strangely irresistible pastiche (and veiled critique) of Americana, written when both men were in the States in the early 1940s and quickly abandoned after a disappointing first performance. The young Britten’s score is all sunshine and open plains, lilt and swagger. It appropriates and reinvents the local idioms more convincingly than does Auden’s witty but ultimately rather obscure and convoluted libretto, which assembles a bunch of yee-hawing archetypes around the mythical (and unseen) figure of Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack of North American folklore.

The set (by Fleischle again) encloses the action within a large wooden barn lined with bunk beds, and Liam Steel’s direction brings out the infectious enthusiasm of ETO’s youthful personnel. There were a couple of misjudgments: Piotr Lempa’s overly camp Ben Benny, for example, and the late introduction of heavy-handed references to the ills of modern America, with the presents at the Christmas Party including a gun, a copy of Playboy, and a judge’s wig and noose. Paul Bunyan’s presence was evoked by a hat and flag, often positioned on top of a ladder. His lines, meanwhile, were spoken by a pre-recorded Damian Lewis, whose quizzical, slightly sinister-sounding tenor hardly felt right — I couldn’t help thinking of Hal, the ship’s computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey,

The orchestra (under Philip Sunderland) mastered the work’s multiple accents, as did the cast, led by Mark Wilde, clean-voiced and suave as the balladeer Jonny Inkslinger. There was a notably fine, passionate performance from Abigail Kelly as Fido, and Caryl Hughes made the most of Tiny’s exquisite lament, to name just two other members of the excellent ensemble. The piece itself is a bizarre creature. When performed with such energy, though, it’s very difficult not to like it.

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