Violently pacifist. It’s an oxymoron. But it is also the only way to describe King Priam, written by Tippett nearly twenty years after his brief imprisonment as a conscientious objector in 1943. In our modern bunting-laden aftermath of the Queen’s Jubilee, the Royal Wedding and the Olympics, we seem to have almost forgotten that not everyone in Britain agreed with, or helped with, the war effort. King Priam is a blistering reminder that some people wished to have nothing to do with the war at all; by 1962, Tippett’s scathing fury had abated not a jot.

As a classicist, I must tell you that there are elements of King Priam which are, quite honestly, unfair to Homer. Tippett’s Achilles is a petulant egotist, not the spiritually maturing warrior of the Iliad. Priam’s ransom of Hector’s body is, in Homer’s poem, a transcendent moment of compassion and humanity: in Tippett’s opera, it becomes a vicious comment on the tawdry nature of military sacrifice. The longing for honour and glory, which in Homer drives men on to deeds of nobility and bravery, is turned by Tippett into a stupid, shortsighted impulsion towards endless death. For Tippett, any victory is hollow: beyond corpses, precisely nothing is achieved by war. As this truth dawns on Priam, he realises (too late) he wants the cycle of killing to end, even at the price of honour. The opera finishes, with Priam’s death, on a note of absolute futility.

English Touring Opera has created a strong and beautiful production, which should be seen for its design and costumes alone. Anna Fleischle’s angular concrete set feels ancient and timeless, with a brutality which suits the piece perfectly. Her costumes are fabulous, full of natural materials (feathers, antlers, leather, bone) and a visual feast in contrast to Tippett’s spare, elegant music. The cleverness of some details, such as the many tiny pyramid lanterns which, held at different heights by the chorus, become the Greek camp stretching out along the beach, is a constant joy.

Meanwhile, James Conway’s thoughtful and thought-provoking direction asks all Tippett’s questions. The intellectual firepower of Conway’s vision is especially pronounced in Priam’s scenes with the Old Man (Andrew Slater), Nurse (Clarissa Meek) and Young Guard (Adam Tunnicliffe), dramatising his philosophical and moral (or amoral) choices. Conway handles these scenes sensitively, allowing the characters to speak for themselves and forcing us to draw Tippett’s inevitable conclusions.

It must be said that Tippett’s music is difficult, both to listen to, and to sing. Michael Rosewell, conducting, gives the score coherence and shape with a strong, lean sound. The libretto is interesting, and mostly well-written, though Tippett cannot set words to music as felicitously as his contemporary Britten. Some singers end up with an almost unsingable mouthful of words; others have to slur or roll their diction to get through the line. Despite this, most of the singing is strong.  For me, Camilla Roberts as Andromache was the undoubted queen of the evening: she alone made her music sound natural and beautiful, a tricky job here. Niamh Kelly came a close second with her thrillingly seductive Helen, a magnetic presence on stage. Clarissa Meek gave her Nurse stillness and pent-up gravitas. Grant Doyle was excellent as Hector, with just the right amount of blasé muscularity and heartwarming sincerity, while his snide, sharp brother Paris was played wonderfully by Nicholas Sharratt. Thomas Delgado-Little was nothing short of brilliant as Young Paris, appearing at ease on stage and singing with calm purity and clarity. Piotr Lempa was fantastic as Patroclus, managing to inject vivid characterisation into a small, but vital role. Adrian Dwyer did an excellent job as Hermes, a role which has some remarkably unforgiving music.

My only disappointments were that, amid such strong support, Priam and Hecuba (Laure Meloy) seemed somehow not to occupy the emotional epicentre of the piece: Hecuba’s music is tough indeed, verging on the strident (for which I blame Tippett, not Meloy) and Roderick Earle as Priam seemed too muted altogether, though I am sure this will improve through the tour. Charne Rochford’s voice did not seem best suited to the music of Achilles, though he acted with skill and sincerity. Despite these reservations, I found myself thinking about this opera for days afterwards. 

The Iliad is no simple war-cry. Homer highlights the pain of conflict in a masterpiece of nuanced emotions which astonishes us, even today. However, for Tippett, Achilles was the ideal cultural shorthand for the sort of war-making he hated: aggressive, glorious, deadly. As Homeric heroes are entirely committed to the value of war, irrespective of outcome, Tippett uses them to assassinate the idea of armed conflict. For me, this came across most profoundly in Andromache’s beautiful, bitter “For the sake of Troy! Is there no other sake?” Tippett’s view rings uncomfortably true, given the senseless waste of life we have witnessed in the 20th century and since. It is tough, coldly logical and uncompromising.  It leaves us feeling profoundly unsettled. Not a night for the faint hearted.