Tippett’s second opera, King Priam, comes to the Marlowe Theatre on Wednesday 23 April, and should be required viewing both for fans of this much-eclipsed composer, as well as for operatic admirers.
The opera, like its composer, has been overshadowed by that bastion of the English compositional Establishment, Benjamim Britten; Priam was premiered in Coventry Cathedral in 1962, the day before Britten’s War Requiem. But perhaps because Tippett was never quite embraced by the establishment in the same way as Britten was, his music is equally not as self-consciously bombastic, as mannered, as Britten’s; there’s a refreshingly instinctive honesty, a vibrant can’t-help-myself quality to Tippett’s music (for all the impenetrability of later works: the Knot Garden, anyone ?). The joyous Second String Quartet, the Concerto for Double String Orchestra, positively bound off the page in their exuberant, wild and positive energy.
In writing Priam, Tippett wanted to portray a timeless concept that would make his choice of subject matter, drawn from Greek tragedy, resonate in twentieth-century post-war Britain: as Tippett himself declared it, “the absolute solitude of the tragic characters under the gaze of the hidden God.” The drama explores human relationships, the wider considerations of the dilemma of choice and the ultimate truth that perhaps we cannot fully grasp the intricate web of ramifications of the choices we make. The solitude of the characters stems from their inability to see the complete web of implications woven by their decisions, which of course leads inexorably to Priam’s eventual death.
Tippett’s instrumental tapestry for the opera is always inventive, breaking up the homogeneity of the orchestra and including the use of piano and classical guitar, the latter especially effective in the aria ‘Oh, rich-soiled land’ sung by Achilles (and later distilled into the suite ‘Songs for Achilles;’)
English Touring Opera brings King Priam to Canterbury; it promises to be an unmissable experience. In a fit of giddy excitement, I bought my tickets weeks ago: make sure you get yours…