Saturday, May 10, 2008
I was thrilled to find in this morning’s mail, the hot-off-the-press DVD release of the Kent Opera production of Sir Michael’s “King Priam.” This has for years been one of my favorite videos of any opera, and though I still own it on VHS, that tape has seen better days, so I’ve been waiting for this to appear on DVD – for years never believing it would finally happen. Well, here it is! First the technical: Little seems to have been done in transferring it to DVD, though it appears to have been minorly cleaned up, but since this was shot on videotape in 1985 lacks the visual "pop" we're getting used to with HD. It is still looks good. I did have to cruank up the sound as the audio seems to have been recorded at a lower volume, but that's a minor quibble. There are no extras, save for the standard subtitles in several languages and chapter settings.
The VHS release was little known and seemed to be something of a cult hit – even amongst modern opera aficionados. It’s my hope that this attractive new DVD incarnation, nicely put together by Arthaus, will find this production – and Tippett’s magnificent opera, a whole new audience. While there has always been some debate on Tippett providing his own libretto, some finding it subpar to the music, I find the text to be one of incredible imagery, and beauty. Often criticized for sometimes arty-ponderous turns of phrase in his other works, here, working from The Ilyiad and the Fabulae of Hyginus, Tippett was inspired - artful and direct, fusing equally its components of text and music and condensing one of the world’s great tales into a gripping musical drama.
One of the most interesting aspects of the score is that its composer uses a sparseness to the orchestration – recitatives, arias and ensembles with spare accompaniments, broken up – punctuated and punctured by violent outbursts sometimes by solo instruments, others by massive walls of sound. The opera, composed in 1962, sounds fresh enough that, were its composer still among us, one might not be surprised to learn the ink hadn’t yet dried on the score. I have read some compare Priam's score to Berg's Wozzeck, in matters of tonality and structure, but I fail to see the connection or any necessity in comparing one with the other: Each has plenty to comment upon on certain aspects of the human condition, but then so do Massenet's Manon and Bach's Passions. Musically, I find there is more here in common with Stravinsky and Barber.
Another feature I very much like was how Tippet scores a number of scenes with only one, or several instruments, e.g., guitar, piano, cello, and harp. One of the most hauntingly beautiful and odd moments in this opera is Achilles' aria "O rich soiled land" – accompanied only by guitar. Somewhat boldly (especially for 1962) Tippett makes clear what is at best usually only hinted at and that is the great love shared between Achilles and Patroclus.
The original direction for the Kent Opera by Nicholas Hytner (directed for television by Robin Lough)is presents a timeless, "indoor" Troy, both futuristic and ancient feels more like an office building, partially in ruins but gleaming white as it steadily grows jagged, jumbled, its surfaces –as the evening wears on - cluttered variously and stained by earth, blood, wire, sandbags and eventually everything we perceive as the wreckage of war. While not "realistic" in appearance this production is every bit as powerful visually as it is musically.
Several moments stand out and provide lump-in-your-throat terror, excitement and beauty. The image of Priam and his sons standing over the corpse of Patroclus and stripping down to smear their torsos with his spilt blood reaches a fever pitch, their triumph turned inside out by Achilles’ horrifying battle cry at the discovery of his beloved’s murder. The scene that moves me most is that of the King, barefoot and broken who, humbled bows before Achilles and, kissing “the hands of him who slew my son," begs for the mutilated body of Hector. As the two enemies share wine they discuss the futilities of their efforts and, in candor, prophecy how each will die at the hand of the other’s son.
Without ever getting preachy, by guiding the story through its natural contours, Tippett’s opera is among the strongest anti-war statements made by any artist equal to Britten’s harrowingly beautiful “War Requiem.” Historically these works are also linked together, premiering in back-to-back in Coventry in May 1962; Priam on the 29th, the War Requiem on the 30th.
As Priam, Rodney Macann gives a tour-de-force performance, giving the enormous palette of Priam’s emotions full range, musically and dramatically. He is never short of amazing. The Achilles of Neil Jenkins, makes this “hero” equal parts seductive and repulsive. Christopher Gillett, his body painted gold and at first wearing but a G-String, has an otherworldly ease and his aria preparing the final scene is beautiful. The trio of women – Andromache, Helen and Hecuba are, respectively, Sarah Walker, Anne Mason and Janet Price – while looking a little older than their male counterparts, handle their difficult music wonderfully and dramatically. (They also briefly appear as the godesses Athene, Hera and Aphrodite.)
Honors extend also to riveting performances by Omar Ebrahim as Hector and Howard Haskin as Paris. While neither possesses a voice of great beauty, each serves the music well and make believable the difficulties between Priam's sons. Tippett populates his tale with a trio of huntsman, nurse, Old Man, Young Guard, soldiers, etc.
Musically everything is held together perfectly by then Ken Opera’s Music Director, Roger Norrington who leads a reading from those forces that is appropriately propulsive, contemplative and compelling. “King Priam” is not an easy entertainment that can move you, sweeping the observer along in the easy manner of Puccini or Mozart. Its subject matter, its musical language and its individualistic way with the story require – or should I say “demand” one pays complete attention in order to reap its many, and powerful rewards.
This is a most welcome release to DVD and, again, I hope this wins new fans to one of Tippett’s greatest works.