Magazine article The Spectator

Trusting in Tippett

Magazine article The Spectator

Trusting in Tippett

Article excerpt

Opera

King Priam (Coliseum) King Priam is Tippett's most sustained, though in its first two acts also highly compressed, attempt to demonstrate that he had a cool head as well as a warm, large heart. Though the austerity of the score is no longer something that strikes one indeed, it is incredible that it can ever have sounded that way - it certainly abjures the lushness of The Midsummer Marriage, and the libretto is compact and reflective.

In a fine essay in the programme book Paul Driver states 'The opera might be seen as an abstraction of tragedy', and 'The idea of a story is more important to Tippett than the thing itself; the characters see themselves as part of a story', and that seems to me exactly right. They have a degree of self-consciousness that is alien to their Homeric prototypes, indeed to heroic or epic characters in general; they are almost as aware of the mythic roles they have to play out as the characters in Thomas Mann's Joseph and his Brothers, except that there the awareness of their destiny is comic or ironic, modes utterly alien to Tippett. The characters in King Priam are burdened by the sense that they are enacting permanent human predicaments, as if they not only have to contend with Fate, but also with the roles they have been assigned in the latest update of the Trojan story. Probably it is a good thing that one hears only a moderate proportion of their words, or in the case of the women far less than that, at least in the current revival of the work at the Coliseum, in Tom Cairns's production.

The situations are made sufficiently clear in Tippett's most accomplished piece of dramaturgy, and the staging is of a sensible and unobtrusive lucidity, so that one soon gathers that from Priam's early decision to have Paris killed they are condemned to make choices and live with the consequences - though actually that is exactly what doesn't happen in the case of Paris, who is rescued. It has always struck me as odd that while Tippett is almost embarrassingly emphatic about the centrality and weightiness of choice, perhaps locating it as the major tragic element in this drama, Priam in fact lives to see his choice revoked and to regret that it was. Had Paris indeed been killed, then no Trojan War . …

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