But Tippett’s powerfully gritty work has failed to find the place in the
repertoire that it deserves, so it was welcome news that English Touring Opera
were opening their Spring tour with James Conway’s new production of the opera.
I attended the opening performance on 13 February 2014 at Covent Garden’s
Linbury Studio Theatre. Michael Rosewell conducted a new reduced orchestration
by Iain Farrington, James Conway directed with designs by Anna Fleischle.
Roderick Earle sang King Priam with Laure Meloy as Hecuba, Grant Doyle as
Hector, Camilla Roberts as Andromache, Nicholas Sharratt as Paris, Niamh Kelly
as Helen, Charne Rochford as Achilles, Adrian Dwyer as Hermes and a cast
including Andrew Slater, Clarissa Meek, Stuart Haycock, Johnny Herford, Henry
Manning and Piotr Lempa.
The size of the cast, perhaps, gives a hint as to why the opera is not
revived more often. Covent Garden last performed it in 1985 (when the original
Sam Wanamaker production was revived and taken to the Herod Atticus Theatre in
Athens). Opera North’s 1991 production was given by ENO in 1991, the last time
the opera was staged in London, though we had a concert performance at the
Proms in 2003.
Niamh Kelly (Helen)
Anna Fleischle’s set was a single unit concrete bunker-like structure which
gave flexibility to the acting area by including a high level walk way at the
back. The centre of the stage was taken by a small podium with a large metallic
structure which double as a number of things. The playing space was highly
effectively organised, but seemed to lack the space which Tippett’s opera
demands. Partly this was because of the decision to put the orchestra on-stage
behind the singers and hidden by a scrim. This decision was taken partly
because of worries about balance problems at the Linbury Theatre (I understand
for the remainder of the tour the orchestra will be in the pit), but it did
give the overall production a claustrophobic feel. James Conway seems to have
deliberately played this up, with the chorus often crowding onto the stage.
The decision to put the orchestra behind the singers was, I think, a fatal
one. Far too often the bodies of the singers muffled the orchestra. The brass
was rarely thrilling; the fanfares at the opening sounded too distant and the
war music for Achilles at the end of Act two simply did not register strongly
enough — it certainly wasn’t threatening and the brass was at times overwhelmed
by the chorus. There is a lot of fine detail in Tippett’s score, each major
character is doubled by a solo instrument and whilst these were played
effectively some of the detail was blunted.
Nicholas Sharratt (Paris), Grant Doyle (Hector) and Roderick Earle (Priam)
Conway and Fleischle seemed to take similar mis-steps with the costumes. I
can understand the wish to avoid classical Greek costumes. Fleischle seems to
have combined elements of Middle-Eastern dress, notably the rich fabrics with
other more tribal elements. Feathers played a big part in the look of the
production, with lots used in head-dresses as well as in collars and cloaks.
Individual pieces were stunning, and the work which went into the head-dresses
for the three goddesses (Hera, Athene and Helen) in the judgement scene were
individually brilliant. But the overall effect was fussy and busy, and I
particularly disliked the animal skull based crowns for Priam and Hecuba.
Conway and Fleischle seemed to have explicitly reacted against the clean lines
of Tippett’s score, and produced something deliberately at odds with it.
Whereas Conway’s admirable productions of Handel operas are stripped down clean
lines, allowing the music to speak, here he and Fleischle seemed to be doing
their best to compete.
Within these confines there were some stunning performances from the
singers. Whilst Conway’s production does not get the opera quite right, there
was enough to enjoy and react positively when there were so many fine
Roderick Earle gave a towering performance as Priam. Tippett’s vocal writing
in the opera is mainly declamatory and I felt that Earle took time to settle,
but Tippett gives the character a series of strong monologues which help to
clarify things. The scene when Priam goes to beg Achilles for Hector’s body was
particularly powerful. Earle gave a fine account of Priam’s final
disintegration and it wasn’t his fault that the staging here seemed to be too
fussy and miss the point a bit.
Left: Laure Meloy (Hecuba). Centre, foreground: Camilla Roberts (Andromache).
Laure Meloy made a strong, passionate Hecuba. The first Hecuba was the fine
dramatic soprano Marie Collier and Meloy here brought a vividly passionate
warmth to the role. Grant Doyle was brightly enthusiastic Hector, neatly
differentiating the young man of the early scenes from the later seasoned
veteran. He gave a nicely enthusiastic gung-ho feel to the role, making
Hector’s bravado believable. Camilla Roberts was wonderfully tragic and
passionate as his wife (the part was created by Josephine Veasey who was a fine
Didon in Berlioz’s Trojan opera) In the lovely scene in act two when each of
the Trojan women gets a solo moment, Roberts brought forth a stream of lyrical
passion and intensity. Tippett’s writing for the three leading Trojan women is
interesting as he very much eschews the high upper soprano register, no lyric
coloratura here, instead creating three rich warm, believable and highly
differentiated women. Something which the casting and the singers brought out
The young Paris was played by a treble, Thomas Delgado-Little, who projected
the not uncomplicated lines with security and accuracy. Nicholas Sharratt
brought something of this youthful enthusiasm to his portrayal of Paris as an
adult, managing to overcome an unfortunate costume involving a pair of orange
loon pants! Sharratt gave the feeling that Paris had never quite grown up, and
sang Paris’s music with a vividness and a nice bright sense of line. His Helen
was the mysterious Niamh Kelly, who brought out the full complexity of Helen’s
unknowable character, making her tantalisingly mysterious.
Charne Rochford, who has given fine performances as Luigi (Il
Tabarro) and Adorno (Simon Boccanegra) for ETO, was not ideal as
Achilles. He brought passionate intensity and striking vibrancy of voice to
Achilles songs in act two, where Tippett give just a guitar accompaniment. But
what is needed here is lyric clarity and beauty of line. Robert Tear was a
notable exponent of the role and it was originally sung by Richard Lewis, both
tenors capable of combining power with lyric intensity and a sense of line.
Rochford was on securer ground in Achilles’s more dramatic moments. He and
Piotr Lempa made convincing work of Achilles and Patroclus’s short scene
together, and Lempa made you regret that the role of Patroclus is so short.
Upstage: Nicholas Sharratt (Paris) and Niamh Kelly (Helen)
Perhaps one of ETO’s problems was that the casting of King Priam
requires three significant tenors, so it is with relief that I can report
Adrian Dwyer more than entirely admirable in the high tenor part of Hermes, the
divine messenger. His solo paen to the power of music in the middle of act
three was a notable moment.
Andrew Slater brought his familiar vibrant dramatic intensity to the role of
the Old Man. He, Clarissa Meek as the Nurse, and Adam Tunniclife as the Young
Guard, made a very strong chorus as they repeatedly stepped out of their roles
and discussed the action. Mediating between the ancient characters and our
present day. Here Conway’s handling was pitch perfect and their scenes were
some of the strongest in the opera.
The smaller roles were all well taken with Stuart Haycock, Johnny Herford
and Henry Manning as Hunters as well as singing in the ensembles.
The orchestra under Michael Rosewell played admirably, and there were some
lovely moments. The score is one of Tippett’s most seductive, and it is elegant
in its spareness. Iain Farrington’s orchestration seemed to preserve the
score’s richness and elegance, would that we could have heard it better.
This is one of those productions which will probably develop as it tours and
it would certainly be worth dropping in to the Cambridge Arts Theatre in May to
catch the final performances. Certainly playing the production in more open,
less confined theatres than the bunker-like Linbury Theatre will be an
improvement. But ETO are to be congratulated for even attempting such a feat
and I urge everyone to take the opportunity to see Tippett’s operatic
Cast and production information:
King Priam: Roderick Earle, Hecuba: Laure Meloy, Hector:Grant Doyle,
Andromache: Camilla Roberts, Paris:Nicholas Sharratt, Helen: Niamh Kelly,
Achilles: Charne Rochford, Hermes: Adrian Dwyer, Old Man: Andrew Slater, Nurse:
Clarissa Meek, Young Soldier: Stuart Haycock, Hunter: Johnny Herford, Hunter:
Henry Manning, Hunter: Piotr Lempa.
here for another perspective from Mark Berry.