Benjamin Britten’s centenary last year confirmed the international appeal of his operas once and for all, but the operas of his friend and contemporary Michael Tippett still depend on a local band of loyal supporters. It is ambitious of English Touring Opera to take a Tippett opera – King Priam – around England this spring, doubly so to have paired it with Britten’s least known, Paul Bunyan.
There are Tippett aficionados who regard King Priam as his finest stage work. It is undeniably an ambitious piece, optimistically engaging with a large chunk of Homer’s Iliad and addressing lofty themes of human choice and responsibility, all rolled up in the composer’s own over-reaching libretto, but this is an opera that is very hard to love.
Like the Homeric heroes it hymns, King Priam takes no prisoners. Tippett portrays his characters with an objective eye, demanding that we see them as much for the issues they represent as human individuals. They harangue us even when they are asking for our sympathy and their musical background is painted predominantly in harsh military fanfares and hard-edged woodwind.
Constrained by touring to suburban theatres, ETO has no choice but to be small-scale. Its chamber version of King Priam works better than could have been predicted: the pared-down orchestra, hidden behind a curtain at the back of the stage, sounds muted for all Michael Rosewell’s best efforts as conductor, but at least the words can be heard, and being physically close to the singers does help us get involved with their tragic dilemmas.
Of the large cast, though, only King Priam has the potential to touch the emotions, and Roderick Earle rose impressively to the challenge. ETO can be proud of the singers it has assembled, especially Grant Doyle’s sturdy Hector, Nicholas Sherratt’s tireless Paris, and the strongly contrasted Niamh Kelly and Laure Meloy, Helen and Hecuba. James Conway’s production makes a reasonable fist of bringing the epic tale to life on a tiny stage and the elaborate costumes are a riot, as if British Fashion Week has sponsored a Neanderthal retrospective. If only Tippett – so noble in his intentions, so exasperating in fulfilment – could have come halfway to engage his audience.