Wednesday 5 March 2014
Five weeks with Priam
At times it felt like ten years before the walls of Troy. And out of over 100 operas, some of them repeated, that I've covered in my opera course over 25 years at the City Literary Institute, only Tippett's King Priam along with Beethoven's Fidelio - my own personal blind spot - made me glad I'd finished with them.
King Priam is not an easy opera to love, nor does Tippett ever try to make it so. Up to a point, I understand his intention: to write music of thorny, embattled combat for a more relaxed age (not that 1962, the year of my birth, was that relaxed) having written an opera of exuberant lyricism for the tense postwar era (The Midsummer Marriage). But there are moments of supposed transcendence - as when Achilles yearns for his homeland, or when Hermes sings first that we should feel 'the pity and the terror as Priam dies', then of 'divine music' to 'melt our hearts, renew our love' - where the actual musical substance still doesn't yield what the text promises. Flute and harp do not the sublime create if the idea still isn't on the level of what, say, Britten would have made of it.
The other problem is that the vocal lines are so relentlessly declamatory that it's not just the singers who tire of them: while the guitar writing for Achilles' meditation is fascinating (shameless and not very good painting of Achilles and Priam above, not worth crediting the French artist), the vocal line is not. I pitied the poor young tenor having to grapple with that in English Touring Opera's disastrous-from-the-start staging the other week.
On the other hand, if any opera stars could convince us of Priam's vocal worth, it would be the line-up on David Atherton's incandescent Decca recording with the London Sinfonietta (now on Chandos). What a vintage this was: a team led by Norman Bailey, my all-time favourite bass-baritone, in which a youngish Philip Langridge and Ann Murray, sounding gorgeous, especially shine and in which Heather Harper, Felicity Palmer, Thomas Allen and Robert Tear all sound very much their own distinguished selves.
And it was certainly a relief to get back to the recording after the poor live experience - though that too had its revelations: the women were superb, and the Andromache, Camilla Roberts, a possible future star (pictured in the foreground seated below; above, bad hat and make-up day, both images by Sim Canetty-Clark).
Atherton grabs you by the throat with the trumpet fanfares, timpani rattles and choral howls at the start (all properly placed, as they were so ridiculously not in the Linbury). The instrumental groupings are always fascinating. But again I'm not always convinced by what Tippett does with them. And structure-wise, there are fascinations - above all the strings-free, short 'war' act - but, while the middle of Act Three is gripping, ultimately it feels a quarter of an hour too long. Somehow the old Kent Opera production by Nicholas Hytner, the only one on DVD, is more companionable. And Omar Ebrahim, pictured as Hector below with the young Paris his brother, was rather delectable in those days (a couple of students even rather fancied Rodney Macann's Priam shirtless, a silver-fox fantasy perhaps).
And that, Tippett operas-wise, is as far as we'll be going in the class: to me, it's a law of diminishing returns with The Knot Garden, The Ice Break and New Year, though admirers say I should try harder. I do love the Piano Concerto, the first two symphonies and the piano sonatas - looking forward to Steven Osborne playing the Second and Third - while I want to get to know the string quartets. Mastery, yes; genius, only sometimes. But I'll keep my Priam score for the singularity of the instrumentation. As far as the class goes, we're now liberating ourselves with the intoxicating panache of Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini.
A family at war is the starting point for Richard Jones's dazzling production of Handel's Rodelinda at English National Opera. I've already waxed indecently lyrical about it for The Arts Desk, but this is the opportunity to use some more of Clive Barda's fine photos of the pre-dress (I hope to go again before the short run ends). Jones deals well with Handel's slow kindle in Act One - like most Handel first acts, low on inspiration - but rises to match the greatness in the duet at the end of the Second Act, which like the staging of a third-act lament is one of the most startling things I've ever witnessed in the theatre. This gives you some idea of the ultimate tableau, John Mark Ainsley's vacillating mobster standing statue-like between the separated husband and wife.
Rebecca Evans is Iestyn Davies' equal for vocal beauty and prowess: what a transformation into an Anna Magnani strong woman. Barda's money shot, IMO, is the one I used to lead the TAD review, but this is a good one. Christopher Ainslie as a long-suffering servant is to the left, the charismatic and attractive young actor Matt Casey as her son to the right. Love the hands (some, like my erstwhile Arts Desk colleague Igor Toronyi-Lalic, did not).
Here's the bar where the soda waters flow, Iestyn Davies centre with Ainslie left and Sue Bickley right.
And a hint of the berserk - which is to be a topic here soon in an American context - as Ainsley's capo tries every which way to despatch his enemy.
It's funnier than it looks. Some reviews thought Jones's concept too jokey, some too dark. I reckon the genius lies in the risk-taking flip between one and the other. It's neither more nor less than Handel's fitfully inspired score deserves. But go and see it, do.
Meanwhile, there's also a certain comedy amidst the horror to the Russian abuse of language in the present standoff: Putin is the defender of the Russians against the 'fascists' - a fair number of those on both sides, though probably Russia scores rather higher than Ukraine - and 'anti-semites'. He represents 'humanitarian values' and human rights. Ponyatno/Yeah, right. And of course there are no Russian troops in the Crimea, even though a BBC World Service reporter had confirmation from a young soldier that he was officially representing his country, and personally didn't think it was right. How Lavrov will worm out of this, how it will all be resolved, makes the mind boggle and the soul despair.