King Priam (1961), alone among Tippett's five mature operas, is based on existing source material (the "Iliad," primarily), and that likely accounts for the fact that it has a narrative coherence atypical of the composer, who wrote all his own librettos. The characters and the story are familiar, and Tippett tells it from the perspective of the Trojan royal family. In spite of the scope of its theme and the immensity of the war in which it is set, this is very much an intimate family drama, focusing on the (consistently unfortunate) choices that the characters make, which ultimately lead to their own destruction, as well as the loss of the war. Tippett's austere second mature opera could hardly be stylistically more different from his first, the lyrically effusive The Midsummer Marriage (1952). In keeping with the theme of war and the ancient setting of the story, the music of King Priam is brutal and angular and can be rough going for anyone looking for reassuring consonance to relieve the characters' turmoil. Tippett's orchestration is exceptionally eccentric, and while it is sometimes striking, as in his use of a solo guitar to accompany most of Achilles' music, its logic is not often apparent. His soundworld here is distinctive, but on first hearing it's largely impenetrable. King Priam is frequently cited by critics as Tippett's masterpiece and repeated exposure may be required to reveal its full impact.
This 1985 production from Kent Opera features a stylized production by Nicholas Hytner, but it lacks the director's usual decisiveness and clarity. Hytner and designer David Fielding place their actors in relatively small, often claustrophobic spaces, and while the intent is certainly to emphasize the intimacy of the human drama rather than the story's epic dimensions, the result frequently just looks dinky and done on the cheap. The randomness of the costuming further weakens the visual effect. Certain things make sense, such as having some of the women in "conventional" ancient looking robes, and Hermes, the messenger of the gods, is painted gold, but lots of other characters wear modern trench coats, and the warriors look like they were outfitted at an Army-Navy surplus store. Hytner elicits a naturalness of acting that's above the level frequently seen in opera houses. The vocal performances are consistently very fine. These are not soloists with especially large voices, but in this studio production with ample miking, they come across well, and they sing with admirable clarity, negotiating the jagged lines with precision, excellent intonation, and fearless passion. Rodney Macann is a sympathetic King Priam, with an especially warm and ingratiating baritone. As Hecuba, Janet Price sings with regal command. Omar Ebrahim and Howard Haskin are especially persuasive as the antagonistic brothers Hector and Paris. Christopher Gillett makes a fleet-voiced and whimsical Hermes. Special note should be made of treble Nana Antwi-Nyanin, who is clear-voiced as Paris as a boy. Tippett's opera and this production are not likely to have broad appeal to traditional opera audiences, but should be of interest to fans of adventurous modern opera and unconventional staging.