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S & H Prom Review

PROM 3: Tippett, King Priam, soloists, BBC Singers, BBC national Orchestra of Wales, David Atherton, RAH, 20th July 2003 (MB)


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.

Marc Bridle



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