Name the piece: a powerful antiwar statement, written for the festival marking the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral, by a British composer known for his pacifism. The obvious answer is Britten’s War Requiem, but the description applies equally to the work which received its première the day before – Michael Tippett’s opera King Priam, which English Touring Opera are bringing to the Gala next week in their Olivier-award winning production.
Apart from his enduringly popular oratorio A Child of our Time, Tippett’s music has often been overlooked – and I’m guilty of this myself, although, bizarrely, the only time I’ve ever been to the Royal Opera House was to see the 1996 production of his first opera, The Midsummer Marriage. That was back in the days when my only exposure to opera had been the romantic classics, mostly at truly dire performances in provincial Russia, and even though I struggled to understand it, it was seeing The Midsummer Marriage that convinced me that there was a fascinating world of opera beyond the clichés.
Unlike The Midsummer Marriage, King Priam has a straightforward storyline, based on that familiar story, so deeply rooted in Western culture, of the Trojan war. There is no glory in Tippett’s war though, and instead of the heroic deeds and the grand sweep of the battlefield, the libretto, by Tippett himself, takes us into the rotting palace behind the walls of Troy. As his city, his people and his family collapse around him, King Priam reflects on the choices that brought him to this tragic end and the terrible consequences of war. There’s more to King Priam than simply a didactic pacifist message about war being a bad thing – it’s also about how we all deal with the wrong, uninformed, blundering choices that thread our lives together.
Tippett looked to Bertold Brecht for inspiration in his presentation of King Priam, stripping away all unnecessary detail, using a few episodes that cast unforgiving light on the actions and decisions of the main characters, and using chorus elements to move the story on. The music matches the stark clarity of the libretto, with lots of instrumental solos and small ensemble groupings – and no strings at all in the second act. I’m already loving the brittle trumpet fanfares in ETO’s trailer video. Judging by the photos and reviews of this King Priam, it looks as if ETO’s production does justice to the fierce rawness of the story, and the presence of lots of natural materials in the costumes – feathers, fur, bones, antlers – create an air of dark Dionysian chaos that to me always seems closer to the heart of the tragic Greek myths than any cool marble statues.
King Priam isn’t performed very often and to have it coming to Durham in such an acclaimed production is an absolute treat. It’s scandalous that there are still tickets on sale – watch the trailer, read this excellent review by my Bachtrack colleague Charlotte Valori, and I’ll see you there.