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.


David Damant said...

I suggest that in looking at the crisis in Ukraine (originally I believe the name means "the border state" which explains a lot)one should bear in mind that, as George Orwell and Robert Conquest have said, people in different countries are not the same. Conquest argues that Russians have behind them centuries of imperial Russian culture and 70 years of communism ( "an imported theoretical-terrorist tradition") It is a mistake to assume that President Putin is someone like us who has taken decisions we do not agree with. In a way, the fact of his difference should make it easier to deal with him, if we take the difference into account.

But my ( limited)reports from Russia and Kyiv ( Kiev is the spelling in Russian) is that 95% of Russians and Ukrainians would prefer to get on with their lives. But my correspondents are youngish.

The heroes of the Trojan war were magnificent fighters, and princes. Hector was sensational. ("I am the foremost warrior" - his wife Andromache is supposed to have preferred to be astride) If the operatic singers do not look strong and muscular and princely they should anyway act like fighters, radiating power. But possibly Tippett does not portray them as in the Iliad or Aeneid

David said...

Let's maybe start from what peoples in every country have in common: the right to lead peaceful lives without undue pressure from authoritarianism. The most impressive thing I've seen was the ordered way Ukrainians in Kiev - yes, I'm well aware of the alternative spelling - took their children to see the extravagant lifestyle of their fallen tyrant. There was no violence, no smashing up of the symbols of oppression. All very orderly, all - dare one say it - rather English (were it not for our own riots).

It is a mistake, certainly, to think that Putin will play by any kinds of diplomatic rules or treaties. And now he is so blatantly lying (about the forces in the Crimea) that he puts his missionaries in an impossible situation when faced with 'did you or did you not' kind of questions. I see no logical way out of this. Strong sanctions, maybe, and to hell with Cameron's obscene qualms about damage to the City. We'll just have to weather the storm.

The heroes - they weren't real, you know. It's all oral history gilding a mostly fictional past with a glimmer of a basis in history. Don't know where you get the tittle-tattle about Andromache from. The Achilles in the ETO production was a big chap, looked like a Maori warrior. Unfortunately Tippett asks for one character to describe Paris as 'the most beautiful man alive' - there's always going to be a titter or a groan of disappointment at the operatic reality.

At least there's warlike power in Achilles' ululations at the end of the second act.

Susan Scheid said...

A soldier in the trenches of opera, you. I don't tend to gravitate toward Tippett generally, though I've certainly heard music of his I like. And now, for something completely different, though you may know already: The recording of Adams' Gospel is just a few days away from release here! (Hope that link comes out all right. One never knows.)

David said...

King Priam was almost a trench too far. I do try to deal with my blind spots but I firmly believe that in this case the fault isn't always with me, that Tippettians go too far in overvaluing some aspects of the piece and ignoring its weaknesses.

I spotted that DG, of all labels, was championing the Adams: asked BBCMM if it had gone out for review, and alas, it had. I live in hope for Infinite (or is it Absolute) Jest, which Tilson Thomas is bringing here with the San Franners in a fascinating programme (orchestration of Ives's The Alcotts, which I cited here in the Beethoven 5 post and Symphonie Fantastique).

Susan Scheid said...

I remember so well the kerfuffle at TAD (and how well you handled it). Do you think this might be a particularly British preoccupation? We have our own, of course, but I don't think Tippett would give rise to such spirited debate!

Re Adams: Ah, you would have been perfect for this assignment, too! But I hope you do find another outlet for comment on the CD.

David said...

Yes, Sue, I think it might be - while the Parterrian opera queens are obsessed by 'effing Brits' taking roles away from Americans, which leads them to slag off such gifted, first-class talents as - only yesterday - Lucy Crowe and Valerie Masterson, we have our Lovers of British Music. Nothing wrong with that, but as I learnt when I went to hear Granville Bantock's Hebridean Symphony and had a jolly good laugh - the 'Celtic' is a lot better - there were plenty of members of the Elgar Society who seemed to think that 'dear old Gran' was on the same exalted plane.

Likewise recently with Foulds and Havergal Brian. By all means let's hear these pieces, but estimate their proper value as singular curiosities and not 'unjustly neglected' masterpieces.

Funny that Tippett should fit into this since, despite certain English sensibilities in some of his works, he's as unparochial as Elgar or Britten. But I feel that in fighting his corner especially against BB, his admirers have sometimes overstated certain cases among his tough, exuberant works.

Susan Scheid said...

Parterre, which I'd not heard of until you mentioned it sometime back, sounds cutthroat! Think I'll keep that one off my docket. And isn't it silly to fuss over the nationality of singers--we should all have a chance to hear the best! Of course at the rate things are going at the Met Opera, we may not have a chance to hear anyone this coming season. (Aside from Klinghoffer and Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, I'm not thrilled about the line-up, anyway.) PS: speaking of opera, I did in the end have something to say about the Gotham Chamber Opera performance of Monteverdi and Beecher. I realized that, while I may not be able to speak much to the “technical” end (feeling that a bit keenly as I try and approach Shos 10, needless to say), I do have something to say about the experience. So I now have.

David said...

Yes, best keep away from the harsh vibes. I left the Parterre comments playground years ago, along with a couple of others, having taken a long time to learn my lesson that the bullies always shout louder. Which doesn't always prevent them popping up elsewhere (not here even pre-moderation, fingers crossed).

Worrying news about the Met struggles. It looks like the house could be 'dark' for the greater part of a season, is that possible?

Glad you decided in favour of giving your much-needed opinion in favour of a worthwhile cause. Will go and have a look.

Susan Scheid said...

Re the Met: I used to read this sort of thing and dismiss it as just so much sabre-rattling. After Minnesota and the New York City Opera debacles, I'm not so sure, anymore.

Gavin Plumley said...

Very interesting David. It's not a work I know at all... and I've rather missed the boat this time around. Do I read between the lines of your reference to A Midsummer Marriage, however, that we share an admiration for that work? Seeing it under Hickox's baton at the ROH was a true highlight. If only I'd heard Haitink conducting the same when that glorious Graham Vick production was new.

David said...

Well, Sue, we live in fear here too. ENO is so much in the red; plugs could be pulled. And meanwhile the artistic levels are as high as each show allows - which, in the case of the recent Grimes, Rodelinda and (I'm told) Rigoletto is very high indeed: that's always the tragedy. But once something like that is lost, it's usually gone forever.

I'm still in two minds about The Midsummer Marriage, Gavin: plenty of beautiful music but my interest falters at times and I can't properly connect with the fable. Haitink conducted it wonderfully, Hickox alas with very little rhythmic sense, least of all in the (dully choreographed) dances. He was booed the night I went (not by me - something I'd never do).

My introduction was through a psychedelic Pountney production for ENO. Everyone who saw it said WNO did it best.

As for Priam, you're lucky to have missed the ETO boat since the production was a grave misrepresentation. Get hold of the Atherton recording: as vivid an argument as will ever be made for the work.