Tippett, it seems, is still difficult
music if the vast rows of empty seats at last night’s concert performance
of King Priam was anything to go by. Even in the circle, high
above the Albert Hall, there seemed to be less than a quota of people
to make up an Olympian jury of Gods. A pity, for this was largely a
more than satisfactory performance of Tippet’s second opera.
True, King Priam doesn’t
always have the lyrical interest of Tippett’s first opera, The Midsummer
Marriage, and it is also a more strikingly chamber-like opera than
its predecessor; that it doesn’t really come off in an auditorium as
vast as that of the Albert Hall, which can obscure the more intimate
moments of this work, also means it requires more concentration on the
part of the listener. Although the diction was generally very clear,
it wasn’t always audible – especially when the singers sang in trio
(somewhat lamentably projected in Act III). But what really made this
performance the insufferable experience it was at times was the simple
fact that King Priam is not suited to concert performance. Like
Parsifal, it requires a visual dramaturgy (only Priam really
develops as a character, for example) to focus the attention.
Yet, by and large, David Atherton
rescued the evening by conducting an incandescent performance of the
score that glowered and shone with latent energy. Beautifully intoned
strings (with the reduction in violins stipulated by Tippett) brought
home the distopian underworld of the work (no better heard than in the
Act III orchestral Interlude which recalls Parsifal in its darkly-drenched
sonorities); heraldic-sounding brass, capable of moments of both great
plangency and an effortless stridency, were often gold-toned. So beautiful
was their phrasing it was often difficult to believe in Act II that
there were actually no strings on stage – and if the Varesian sound-world
Tippett tried to evoke of war in this act didn’t quite feel as embattled
as it has done in the opera house that wasn’t necessarily a problem.
David Wilson-Johnson’s Priam dominated
the performance like the shadow of death. This is a singer capable of
wide-ranging vocal emotion – from his vocally wilting, painfully expressive
singing in Act I where he agrees that Paris must die, to his ambivalence
at the news of Hector’s death, and his touching meeting with Achilles
in Act III where he reclaims the body of his son, the range of expression
was absolute. One of the few singers on stage to project effortlessly
– even at pianissimo – he brought genuine pathos and angst to his role.
Others, it should be said, were less fortunate. Both Susan Bickley and
Susan Parry had some difficulty sounding different in their dual roles
of Andromache/Hera and Helen/Aphrodite (though Bickley was magnificent
in her aria, accompanied by pizzicato strings, ‘My husband, Paris’).
More worrying was the vocal inadequacy of the Paris and the Achilles.
Marcel Reijans, as the former, is hampered by having a very small voice
and if he did successfully give us the illusion that this is a febrile,
Narcissus like character much of it went for nothing since his voice
disappeared into the ether. Martyn Hills’ Achilles, on the other hand,
was magnificent in his Act II narration ‘O rich soiled land’ – accompanied
by the evocatively conjured guitar playing of Steve Smith – but where
it really mattered – in his war cry at the end of Act II – he proved
sorely disappointing; perhaps the only moment in the opera that should
really make the listener recoil and shiver it did neither.
Undoubtedly resplendent were the
BBC Singers. They sang quite beautifully throughout – from their chorus
as the Wedding Guests (they were especially memorable when Tippett divides
the lines between the registers at ‘he did not like it at all")
to the women’s role as Serving Women in the First Interlude of Act III,
their contribution to the performance was notable for the purity and
precision of their articulation. The male chorus’ cries of ‘War. War.
War.’ throughout Act II fired exactly the right mood that Achilles’
own war cry failed to do.
Even if this was a performance
with mixed fortunes it was certainly worth hearing Tippett’s opera,
for so long absent from London opera houses.