King Priam

By Charlie Richards

Originally published on Advocate.com May 17 2008 12:00 AM ET

Sir Michael Tippett is a gay musical icon who, most likely, few gay people are familiar with. This is understandable for many reasons: His realm is that of modern “classical” music, an area that even some hard-core classical music fans dare not approach. Secondly, while not strictly atonal or avant-garde, his musical style is somewhat difficult to get accustomed to and has been labeled by some critics as overly intellectual. Those who are familiar with the thornier, more astringent passages in Benjamin Britten’s music may have some idea of Tippett’s musical world. But that should by no means scare the curious away from Tippett, as this newly issued DVD of a remarkable 1985 production of his opera King Priam makes most abundantly clear.

Tippett, born in 1905, came to general public notice in 1955 with the premiere of his opera The Midsummer Marriage, which remains his most popular work. Along with this opera and King Priam, his output was extensive: symphonies, oratorios, the famous cantata A Child of Our Time, string quartets -- in fact, he explored just about every musical form, all with equal artistic success. During most of his life he lived as an openly gay man, bringing a decided gay sensibility to a number of his stage works. This is most explicit in his masterful (though, sadly, underperformed) opera The Knot Garden, which had its world premiere in 1970 and featured an interracial gay couple, Mel and Dov, and also includes a scene in which the main, straight character, Faber, experiments sexually with another man. Tippett was knighted in 1966, making him perhaps the first openly gay man to be given this honor.

King Priam was Tippett’s second opera and premiered in 1962. Although the gay subtext is not as pronounced here as it would later be in The Knot Garden, the libretto, written by Tippett -- he, like Wagner before him, would write all his own libretti -- abounds with implied homoeroticism, particularly in the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. The homoerotic nature of the work is even more pronounced in the present production by Nicholas Hytner for the Kent Opera, which clearly shows that the aforementioned couple are lovers (they are first seen, in the second act, reclining in bed together).

But this is just a sideline to the main theme of the work, which is the unstoppable hand of fate. In the first scene, Priam (sung by the remarkable Rodney Macann), upon hearing from a soothsayer that his newborn son, Paris, will, one day cause his own death, must choose between fatherly love or his own destruction. Hecuba (Janet Price), his wife -- in an excitingly fiery aria that features a brilliant agitated string passage that will accompany her character throughout the rest of the work -- she insists that the infant be destroyed, to which Priam, after a soul-searching solo, reluctantly agrees. He is faced with the exact same dilemma some years later when he encounters the boy Paris, whom he thought to be dead. This time he decides to obey the will of fate as well as his paternal instinct and recognizes the child as his own.

Those who are familiar with Homer will know the rest of the story: Paris grows to manhood and abducts the Spartan queen Helen, thereby instigating the famous Trojan War. Things go well at first for the Trojans, particularly when the Greek hero Achilles sulkily retires to his tent with his companion Patroclus. It is only when Patroclus is killed by Priam’s elder son, Hector, that Achilles returns to the field and the soothsayer’s prediction is fulfilled -- although Achilles is ultimately killed by Paris, the result is the destruction of Troy and therefore of Priam as well.

Tippett’s libretto is penetratingly literate, with each character musing poetically on various themes throughout. There is also a “Greek chorus” of sorts, made up of an elderly nurse, the soothsayer, and a young warrior, who in a series of interludes comment on the action and drive home the idea that no one can escape a fate predestined by the gods.

The Kent Opera production is suitably stark but also remarkably beautiful. The sets generally contrast white and black (pure white in Achilles’ tent), with very little range of colors in between, except for the deep blood-red that predominates in the violent third act. The cast is exceptional. Macann is stately, masculine, and noble in the title role, capable of deep emotion, both loving and vengeful. His two great solos in the first act, in which he struggles with conflicting instincts of self-preservation and fatherly devotion, are delivered with keen insight into the character. Anne Mason’s fury-like Hecuba -- though her character is a bit more one-sided -- is also delivered with emphasis on the dramatic text (and her brilliant voice is nigh flawless). Howard Haskin’s Paris has a bit of a stinging tone, but he is physically perfect for the role, and his love scene with Helen (Anne Mason) is delivered with real sexual passion. Mason may not be physically the most beautiful woman in the world (as Helen, we are told, was), but she convinces as Helen due to the luxurious sensuality of both her voice and her acting. Neil Jenkins’s creamy baritone gives a supple edge to Achilles and makes his love scene with Patroclus in the second act all the more achingly beautiful and his rage at the latter’s death all the more heartbreaking.

Next to Macann’s, the most glorious performance by far is that of Sarah Walker as Andromache, Hector’s wife. Her deep, assured mezzo voice gives a certain regal beauty to this somewhat secondary character -- she would go on to be one of the United Kingdom’s most acclaimed opera stars.

Although Tippett’s musical style is indeed academic and thorny, there are many moments of great beauty in the score. Most of this is reserved for Paris and Helen (as in the aforementioned love duet in the first act), but Tippett gives other characters moments of purely poetic music-making as well. Achilles’ “O rich-soiled land of Phthia,” accompanied by solo guitar, is one of the highlights of the score, as is Hermes’ “Oh divine music,” a tranquil and hauntingly beautiful aria delivered as an interlude between two very bloody scenes in the third act.

King Priam is rarely staged, even in the U.K., so this is most likely the only video presentation of the work that we will ever see. However, one may ask oneself if any other version is even necessary, as this one comes so close to perfection on almost every count. Although the video dates from 1985, the sound and picture are crystal clear, and the presentation excellent in every respect.