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King Priam

Spring 2014

Michael Tippett

First performed at the festival marking the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962, Michael Tippett’s opera is a magnificent evocation of a father’s radical choices and their consequences in time of war.
Archive: Spring 2014
  • 4 Stars

    A performance of ravaged majesty from Roderick Earle in the title role … Unnerving, seductive stuff, and utterly compelling.

    The Guardian

  • 4 Stars

    The cast is terrific … For much of King Priam’s duration the stage is filled to bursting with humanity, whether named characters or the ever-present (and quite marvellous) ETO Chorus.


  • 4 Stars

    English Touring Opera has created a strong and beautiful production, which should be seen for its design and costumes alone.



Act I

An Old Man imparts a dreadful prophecy to King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy: their newborn son, Paris, ‘will cause as by an inexorable fate his father’s death’. They decide to have the child killed.

The Old Man, a Young Guard, and Paris’s Nurse step out of their roles to comment on the action; they whirl the story forward by many years. Priam’s eldest son, Hector, is hunting a bull, and comes across a shepherd boy – in truth, Paris, secretly given up by the Guard to a shepherd. In turmoil, Priam grants the boy’s request to return to Troy.

After the chorus’s second interlude, we hear a grown Paris, staying at Sparta with King Menelaus, making love to Menelaus’s wife, Helen. Paris persuades Helen to return with him to Troy.

Fearful of the Greeks’ revenge, were he to elope with Helen, Paris calls on Zeus to help; Zeus sends his messenger, Hermes, who makes Paris choose the most beautiful of three goddesses. Hecuba appears as Athene; Andromache (Hector’s wife) as Hera; and Helen as Aphrodite, Goddess of Love. Paris chooses Aphrodite/ Helen, and they set sail for Troy.

Act II

The Greeks and the Trojans are bogged down in war; Menelaus has sworn revenge, but the citadel of Troy cannot be penetrated. Hector and Paris are quarrelling; the Old Man calls on Hermes to whirl the action, for the first time, into the Greek camp, where Achilles, their mightiest warrior, stays in his tent, refusing to fight. He sings to his lover, Patroclus, who eventually suggests that he – Patroclus – take to battle in Achilles’s armour, so that the soldiers will be spurred on under the plume of their hero.

The plan is Patroclus’s doom: Hector slays him in battle, and returns to Troy wearing Achilles’s armour. Achilles’s wrath is great, and he interrupts the victorious trio of Priam, Hector, and Paris with his war-cry, announcing his return to the battlefield.


Andromache waits alone for news of her husband, Hector. Hecuba arrives, begging Andromache to persuade Hector to return – Troy cannot afford to lose their best fighter to Achilles. Andromache refuses. Helen enters, and defends herself against the anger of the other two. They sing together to their respective goddesses: Athene, Hera, and Aphrodite.

News arrives: Achilles has slain Hector. It falls to Paris to inform Priam, whose grief is terrible. He debates in his mind with the three chorus-figures of the Nurse, the Old Man,
and the Young Guard, before going at night to Achilles’s tent, behind enemy lines. On his knees, he begs Achilles to return the mutilated body of Hector. Achilles, still mourning Patroclus, agrees. Each will be murdered by the other’s son: Paris will kill Achilles, and Achilles’s son, Neoptolemus, will be one of the soldiers who slay Priam. Hermes sings of Priam’s approaching death, and of the divine and renewing power of music.

Priam will now see nobody – not Paris, with the news that he has killed Achilles; not Hecuba, going to her future as a slave; not Andromache, who has seen Achilles ‘raging through the town swinging my own dead child as club’. Only Helen will he speak to. Troy has fallen to the Greeks. Soldiers burst in and kill him instantly