Shape of Things to Come
By DAVID CAIRNS THE value and stature of Tippett's King Priam are in dispute. But even if (which I do not believe) the work were to be forgotten within a genera- tion, its appearance on the British stage would still be historically memorable for one thing: the coming of age of operatic design in this country. Covent Garden's production of King Priam makes history at the Royal Opera House. It uses modern ideas and techniques of staging, and uses them with complete assurance; and it is the work of a team, which treats the various elements of stage presentation as part of a single indivisible art, resplendent but yoked at every step to the needs of the music-drama.
The fact that Sean Kenny's steeply raked circu- lar stage and the lighting with its elaborate back- projections and frequent subtle and dramatic changes of mood are derived from Bayreuth does not lessen the grandeur and importance of the achievement; it is the dusty parochialism of so much English operatic design that has for years been so depressing, the failure to learn from continental example even when timidly pretend- ing to copy it. There is nothing modish or second- hand about Sean Kenny's designs. They are beautiful and thrilling in themselves (destroying the fallacy that the 'Bayreuth style' means aridity and negation) and wonderfully apt to the opera that inspired them. Apart from the rather dull drop curtain, vaguely suggestive of war, which is on view during the opening fanfares of the work and is not seen again, everything that Kenny has devised seems to me ideal. The cos- tumes, tunics and cloaks and robes, are simple, traditionally 'classical,' but sharpened and made individual by touches of fantasy. King Priam's golden helmet grows into strange extensions at each side like hieratic ram's horns but even more like human ears, preternaturally large and stylised—an odd but irresistible symbol of authority.
A typical Kenny touch, bold and brilliantly successful, is the rocket-like 'gun' which stands on a raised platform of Priam's redoubt at the beginning of Act 2, its thin point trained on the Greek lines—an imaginative reconstruction of an ancient ballistic weapon which at a stroke brings the old forgotten far-off things and battles long ago into the orbit of modern consciousness.
The colours are throughout strikingly attractive and, again, seem both antique and new, evoking the ancient world in a fresh and utterly convinc- ing way. I remember especially the dazzling hunt- ing scene in the first act, with a great soft sun hanging low in a sky of pristine blue, and a peculiar radiant intensity in the light, matching the intense shimmer in the orchestra as Priam, magnificent in richly wrought blues and golds, confronts Paris, a fair-haired shepherd boy in a plain tunic white as a sacrifice (one of many superbly effective moments in Sam Wanamaker's production); and also the browns and blacks and ochres—across which a single table-cloth throws a splash of scarlet—of the scene in Andromache's room, with the serving women in the background carrying jugs or discreetly working at the loom like figures stepped from a Greek vase but alive and moving in a modern world, and the thin tiered pillars which vanish with such ease and swiftness into the flies to make way for the next scene. Among the many fine strokes of lighting I mention two: the curtain of overhead light which descends behind Helen, Andromache and Hecuba as they merge their separate fears in a prayer to the gods of love and home and city, and shuts them, for a moment, like people un- touched within a waterfall, from the raging war outside; and the white image of quest, like a receding star seen obliquely, which appears in the cyclorama as Hermes prepares to speed to the tent of Achilles.
One of the characteristics of the Bayreuth formula is the flexibility with which the staging responds to changes of action and atmosphere. Another is the steep rake which helps the audience to participate in the dramatic ritual by bringing the stage Literally nearer to them, and at the same time encourages the actors (if only out of regard for their own safety) to stay in their correct positions and acquire a more controlled, less loose and 'operatic' style of gesture. Kenny and Wanamaker adapt the formula with unerring mastery to the special needs of King Priam. The rake is very steep, but the device of a revolve within the circular stage, rotating on a different axis, enables them to break up the ramp into two planes and provide simultaneously a raised platform halfway down it and an entrance from behind and beneath the circular stage. Through this entrance Hector appears in Achilles' armour, triumphant from the duel with Patroclus; from this platform Priam rebukes his quarrelling sons, and later, at the news of Hector's death, painfully lays bare his soul before the Chorus.
As for flexibility, it may be illustrated by the ease with which the production manages the mar- vellous but difficult transition (swift as medita- tion) from Troy through the battle lines noisy with trumpets and the encamped Greeks to the quiet of Achilles' tent and the notes of the guitar trickling like drops of water on the dry, listening silence. Here as always the setting moves in per- fect accord with the music. The revolve turns round to make a single plane, the redoubt with its gun disappears, a strip of canvas painted with a quasi-antique orange and black design and shaped so as to suggest (no more) a tent descends from the flies: in front of it, when the lights go up, Achilles and Patroclus are seen reclining in the glow of a small fire while, behind, the mottled fire-ball which glowed redly over Troy has re- appeared on the other side, and the projected ships, before just visible above the horizon, have crossed the cyclorama in a great procession of moving shapes until they dominate it, a forest of towering masts, white on a dark sky. The technique is detailed, and elaborate, the effect simple, exact, overwhelming. Quite apart from anything else King Priam should be seen (there is one more performance this season, on Monday the 18th) for the inspired fidelity with which the truth of an opera is realised, in action and sym- bol, in the theatre. That strange ballista could be a portent of more than the destiny of Priam—a new age in English operatic design.