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Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998)
King Priam (1958-61)
Rodney Macann (bass-baritone) – King Priam
Sarah Walker (mezzo) – Andromache
Howard Haskin (tenor) – Paris
Anne Mason (mezzo) – Helen
Janet Price (soprano) – Hecuba
Neil Jenkins (tenor) – Achilles
Omar Ebrahim (baritone) – Hector
Kent Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Roger Norrington
Directed for TV by Robin Lough
rec. Limehouse Studios, London, 1985
PCM Stereo, Picture format: 4:3, Region code: 0
ARTHAUS 102087 [138:00]


Tippett’s re-telling of part of the legend of Troy follows the Homeric characters through their love, loyalties and vengeance. The plot leads us to the final slaughter of King Priam at the altar of his burning city. The opera also chimes in with Tippett’s pacifist feelings, speaking of the inevitability and futility of war.

Despite the grand themes, this ‘Opera Feature Film’ is micro-set in more ways than one. David Fielding’s sets are stylised and minimal. The spaces the characters inhabit are small – rooms, or tents, and Spartan in their decor, with white initially as the primary background, becoming increasingly smoke-blackened as the struggle progresses. There is a timeless feel to the main characters, but with corrugated iron and white, neon-lit corridors. There are also the shiny 1980s suits of Paris and the male wedding guests, with military greatcoats and ant-stab armour later on. This is clearly a story intended for today, as well as being the stuff of legend.

With the characters contained in a chamber-musical setting, the orchestra also seems to have been wedged into a miniature pit, which suits the action but makes for detailed but relatively unspectacular sound. Nicholas Hytner production places in the foreground the ideas and the power of the characters. The singers who give narration and commentary sometimes look at you directly from your TV screen, which can be quite unsettling, and increases the sense of involvement.

Rodney Macann heads a strong cast, giving a compelling performance as Priam. With such close-up camera-work the acting ability of each singer is exposed, and it often has the feel of a grand opera being carried out on your living-room carpet. Sarah Walker gives a moving portrayal of Hector’s wife, Andromache. Howard Haskin is Priam’s rebellious and convincingly youthful son Paris, who elopes with Helen, wife of the Greek King of Sparta, starting the great Trojan War as a consequence. Christopher Gillett also deserves mention as an expressive, pure sounding Hermes.

There are few enough recordings of King Priam around, so this DVD is something of a must for Tippett collectors. As a performance and recording there is the even earlier 1980 recording with David Atherton and the excellent London Sinfonietta, who certainly have the edge as regards orchestral playing. This Chandos CD release also has the magic of Heather Harper, whose feeling for Tippett’s idiom has rarely been bettered. As far as recorded sound goes it does the business as well if not better than the unavoidably cramped-sounding Kent Opera Orchestra. While this filmed production strives for a modern/classic look, there are a few giveaways which date it somewhat. A few of the suits look as if they might have been borrowed from Star Trek -  The Next Generation. Small caveats aside, this is a powerfully sung performance, and while the atmosphere of a good stage performance is hard to beat, this TV film version still has a great deal going for it after 13 years. Just over fifty years on from its inception this remains one of Tippett’s most challenging scores. The drama is strained through a highly rarefied filter of abstract restraint which is tellingly modern even now. The music speaks with a directness which allows the characters and the all-important narrative to flow without static lingering, and it is these characteristics which are given free rein in this film.

Dominy Clements


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