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Priam’s Triumph

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on February 14, 2014 at 12:41 pm

Review King Priam (English Touring Opera, Linbury Theatre, Thursday 13 February 2014)

King Priam – Roderick Earle
Hecuba – Laure Meloy
Hector – Grant Doyle
Young Paris – Thomas Delgado-Little
Paris – Nicholas Sharratt
Andromache – Camilla Roberts
Helen – Niamh Kelly
Old Man – Andrew Slater
Nurse – Clarissa Meek
Young Guard – Adam Tunicliffe
Achilles – Charne Rochford
Patroclus – Piotr Lempa
Hermes – Adrian Dwyer

Director – James Conway
Designer – Anna Fleischle
Lighting Designer – Guy Hoare

Michael Rosewell (Conductor)

The one and only other time that I have seem King Priam was at English National Opera in the 1990s. Until that point the only music by Tippett I knew really well were A Child For Our Time and his Fantastia Concertante on a Theme by Corelli.

Nothing prepared me for the music Tippett had written for King Priam, which perfectly suited this tragic tale, driving the story forward inexorably to its end.

I remember being both awed and drained by the end of the evening.

It’s an incredible work, both rich in invention and its emotional impact but considering the challenge it presents both to audiences and performance I am not surprised it is not performed more regularly however sad we might feel about that.

So it is to English Touring Opera’s credit that – having taken on the challenge to stage this notoriously difficult work – they succeed for the vast majority of the endeavour.

The most impressive thing about this production is the new orchestration by Iain Farrington for a reduced orchestra hidden at the back of the stage. Never reducing the overall impact of Tippet’s music, it focuses the ear on its scintillating detail, played with incredible technical virtuosity by the orchestra conducted and with authority by Michael Rosewell.

And first mention must go to the chorus, who were stunning. The opening was suitably full-voiced and thrilling as was the close of the Second Act.

Of the characters, it is Roderick Earle’s King Priam and the Hecuba of Laura Meloy who must take the laurels. Earle’s journey from proud king to broken man was most eloquently performed. Tippett isn’t a kind composer for singers, often writing lines of music that seem almost impossible either in terms of range or tessitura. However Earle managed the role most effectively and seemed – sadly – to be one of the sew singers who managed to infuse his role with any colour or dynamic range. The closing scene containing some of Tippett’s most beautiful music – his final acceptance of the end that Fate had in store for him from the very beginning and his final embrace with Helen – was magnificent.

Equally Meloy’s Hecuba, with her impressive steely soprano, matched her spouse word for word, action for action and with the same vocal authority. Her final scene, her reaction as Priam rejected her, was heartbreaking.

The remaining women – Camilla Roberts’ Andromache and the Helen of Niamh Kelly – also delivered strong performances. Andromache’s scene that opened Act Three was – despite a little too much vibrato – impressive both dramatically and vocally. And the ensuing confrontation between the three women was effectively handled. Niahm Kelly’s rich mezzo was ideally suited to Helen and was both beautifully and chillingly sung.

The remaining men – the sons of Troy and Greece – were a mixed bunch. Grant Doyle was a confidant Hector and it was a shame that Tippett wrote so little for Lempa’s resonant Patroclus. Adrian Dwyer’s Hermes possessed a strong tenor voice and made the most of his final ‘aria’, Do Not Imagine All The Secrets Of Life.

But sadly, for me, both Paris and Achilles did not fare so well.

There’s no denying that Nicholas Sharratt has a bright tenor but on opening night it seemed to be always pushed to its most extreme. The result was that there was little finesse to the characterisaton and no discernable dynamic range or colour. For example, his first appearance with Helen was undermined by the strain he displayed. Similarly, the Achilles of Charne Rochford sounded stretched especially in his scene with Patroclus. What should have been a paean of love and friendship sounded more like a shouting match with neither delicacy nor any sense of the lyricism that Tippett had specifically written in to the music over the fleeting guitar solo below. However his scene with Priam in the Third Act was much improved but probably influenced by singing alongside Earle’s impressive Priam.

Yet I couldn’t fault theirs – or any of the singers’ – commitment to the music and the unfolding drama.

The Greek-inspired ‘Chorus” of Clarissa Meek (Nurse), Andrew Slater (Old Man) and Adam Tunnicliffe (Young Guard), for whom Tippett wrote some of the most challenging ensemble music, managed their roles with great confidence and vocal authority.

And all the singers’ diction – of Tippett’s own wordy libretto – was excellent, so much so that I wondered why ETO felt the need for the text displayed either side of the stage.

The direction by James Conway and Anna Fleischle’s staging were simple yet effective and complemented with some smart lighting by Guy Hoare. But was I the only person to be reminded of ETO’s production of Goehr’s Promised End of 2010?

In many ways, the use of the Linbury was perfect. The smaller scale of the theatre made the impact of Tippet’s music and the intensity of the performances more riveting.

Nevertheless and despite the shortcomings, English Touring Opera should be proud – especially at a time when funding is so tight – to have staged Tippet’s King Priam and quite rightly this was a production where Priam, even in the midst of tragedy, triumphed.

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