The last time I saw a Michael Tippett opera a significant number didn’t stay to the end. It’s not the audience I’m talking about, but the orchestra.
At the end of a long tour by Glyndebourne, a hoax call caused the theatre to be evacuated. When all reassembled, the auditorium was fuller than before – thanks to many late-comers who had been refused entry - but the pit emptier. “Some members of the orchestra had decided it was not safe to return,” a spokesman announced.
Thus the musicians spent the larger part of the evening in the pub nearby.
There was a time during King Priam when I was tempted to follow suit. It’s a harsh, atonal piece and particularly in the third act, when the three sopranos, Helen, Hecuba and Andromache comment shrilly on war and marriage, I felt on the edge of my comfort zone.
Nor is there easy comfort in the composer’s typical concern with the difficulty of moral choice and its effect on others.
A bitter charade - impossible, sing those around the throne. And in this excellent James Conway production for ETO, as if driven by animal instincts, Priam’s court is dressed in furs, its soldiers doing battle by locking antlers instead of swords, and Helen swathed in white feathers like a beautiful, brainless bird of paradise.
How unsettling, and how thrilling an evening it produced. Asked to predict what fate the new-born Paris will bring to his father, Andrew Slater’s old soothsayer screams out “Death.” That electrifying moment seemed to charge the entire drama.
There is a kind of savage magnificence in the music too, particularly in the stringless second act, where the exciting percussive attack of the orchestra, under conductor Michael Rosewell, gave way to Achilles’ lament, impressively sung by Charne Rochford to the accompaniment of a single guitar.
Roderick Earle gave a towering performance dramatically as well as vocally as the King, and I had to admire, if not always enjoy the superb singing ability of those sopranos, Laure Meloy as Hecuba, Camilla Roberts as Andromache and Niamh Kelly as Helen, especially in her great aria on sexual love.
Beauty and desire, self and sacrifice. The shadow and the light, two sides of personality, Tippett called it. My mother would have called her a brazen hussy.
By the end, I felt exhilarated, but like those truant musicians, I could do with a drink.
The daring decision to present Priam and Paul Bunyan at the Everyman this week was well rewarded in good attendances, and shows faith in the revival of British operas.
So it’s surprising to find not a word in any of the music press or radio of the 150th anniversary this week of the birth of one of Britain’s most prolific and in his time most popular opera composers.
Although his name suggests otherwise, Eugene Francis Charles d’Albert was born in Scotland of an English mother on 10 April 1864, and the best of his 20 operas, Tiefland (The Lowlands), was performed under Beecham in 1910.
Alas, he didn’t do his p.r. much good with home fans before the First World War by supporting Germany – where his operas remained popular, nor by trying to divorce his six wife to live with a seventh.
A colourful life and colourful music. I hope the BBC may forgive, and give him a spin this Wednesday.