Priam – David Wilson-Johnson (bass-baritone)
Hecuba / Athene Elizabeth Connell (soprano)
Andromache / Hera Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano)
Helen / Aphrodite Susan Parry (mezzo-soprano)
Paris Marcel Reijans (tenor)
Hector William Dazeley (baritone)
Achilles Martyn Hill (tenor)
Patroclus Stephen Roberts (baritone)
Hermes Timothy Robinson (tenor)
Nurse / Serving Woman Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano)
Young Guard Christopher Gillett (tenor)
Old Man Stephen Richardson (bass)
Paris as a boy James Eager (treble)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 20 July, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
With Sir Michael Tippett’s centenary still two years away, you might be forgiven for thinking tonight’s revival of his opera King Priam a little premature. Yet it fits naturally into a Proms season whose prevailing theme is ancient Greek myth and its continued relevance across time. In common with all of Tippett’s major works, moreover, the understanding of Priam – both in terms of what we hear and how we hear it – has changed appreciably since its premiere in Coventry over four decades ago.
It helps that David Atherton was at the helm. Having conducted a near-definitive recording (CHANDOS CHAN 9406/7), and a memorable concert performance at the Royal Festival Hall four years ago, he can claim to know the trajectory of the score like few others. And, for all its apparent static motion and stark gesture, Priam is an opera where an emotional depth manifests itself as keenly as in the refulgent lyricism of The Midsummer Marriage – Tippett’s previous opera, to which Priam represents not a change of direction but more a distillation and refinement of expressive intensity.
The cast here could scarcely be improved upon. Stephen Roberts retained the part of Patroclus, understated soulmate to Achilles; here the laudably expressive, if on occasion over-stretched Martyn Hill, his limpid rendering of the song-interlude in Act Two undermined by rather too rigid a guitar accompaniment. As Hector and Paris, William Dazeley and Marcel Reijans were well contrasted vocally and temperamentally: the former proudly rhetorical and self-assured, the latter suave yet never glib as he struggles to comprehend the chain of events his actions have set in motion.
Timothy Robinson was an agile, incisive Hermes, effortlessly floating his vocal line in the paean to the renewing power of music which forms a radiant interlude before the fatefully denouement. The switching of subsidiary characters between their roles and a Brechtian ’Greek Chorus’, who comment on the action around them, is a cunning dramatic device, unobtrusively employed. Christine Rice’s chastely expressive Nurse, Christopher Gillett’s impetuous Young Guard, Stephen Richardson’s wryly amused Old Man (not to forget James Eager’s plaintive cameo as the young Paris) – each contributed to a musical evolution which runs across the sequence of dramatic tableaux in the opera.
Nowhere is this interplay of static and dynamic elements more pointed than in the principal female roles, where character is conveyed through contrasts in vocal shading and voice type. With Elizabeth Connell secure as Hecuba, Susan Bickley virtuously defiant as Andromache and Susan Parry an ingratiating Helen, such contrasts were powerfully realised: not only in their moving confrontation at the beginning of Act Three – the emotional high-point of the opera – but also in their ’mythical’ guise, at the close of Act One, as Athene, Hera and Aphrodite respectively, pressing Paris into the fateful choice that unleashes warfare.
Of course, any performance of this opera is defined by its eponymous lead. Put simply, David Wilson-Johnson conveyed every facet of character that Tippett projects into the role: the sympathetic father and dutiful king, railing at the machinations of fate yet accepting of his place in the overall scheme of things. Such passages as his rumination on discovering the young Paris, his reconciliation with Achilles over the body of Hector, and his resigned withdrawal as he contemplates infinity were brought out with an admirable combination of humanity and insight – resulting in a historical figure readily identifiable with today.
Returning to Atherton, his realisation of the score – kaleidoscopic rather than mosaic-like, and one in which every thematic and character motif can be perceived as evolving according to the dictates of the drama – adds a dimension to music commonly viewed as static and non-developmental. A pity that the febrile violin writing associated with Hecuba was not always played in unison (an English National Opera production some years ago under Elgar Howarth demonstrated how accurately this can be achieved and with correspondingly more impact), but there was precious little else to criticise in the playing of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, or in the judicious placing of offstage brass around the auditorium. The BBC Singers were equally alive to the subtleties in some of Tippett’s most bracing choral writing.
A performance to savour, then, and one which powerfully reaffirmed King Priam as an opera whose relevance – musical and conceptual – seems evermore pertinent today. Sir Michael would have been provoked, even concerned, but no doubt wryly amused at the thought.