King Priam synopsis
King Priam synopsis
Music by Michael Tippett
Libretto by the composer
First performed: 1962
The theme of King Priam is the mysterious nature of human choice, seen in the relations between Priam, King of Troy, Hecuba his wife, his sons Hector and Paris, and their wives Andromache and Helen.
In the crucial first scene it is foretold that Priam’s second son, Paris, still in the cradle, will cause ‘as by an inexorable fate his father’s death.’ Hecuba makes an immediate and clear choice: ‘Then I am mother no longer to this child. Troy and the city’s king are sacred . . . Let the child be killed.’ Priam’s nature is not so single: ‘A father and a king’. Though he orders the child to be killed, he is troubled by compassion and conscience.
In a dramatized interlude, such as come between all the scenes of the opera, these moral problems are discussed. Whether answering Priam’s hidden compassion or not, the child Paris was not killed, but handed to a shepherd. As a young boy Paris meets his father and his brother Hector in a hunting scene. ‘In the moment of recognition’ Priam reverses his choice, accepts Paris as his son, and accepts the fate foretold for himself and Troy.
Paris and Hector do not get on together in Troy. After Hector’s marriage to Andromache, Paris goes to Greece ‘where Menelaus keeps open house in Sparta with his wife, daughter of Zeus, Queen Helen.’ Here Paris is faced with his choice: to provoke the war by abducting Helen or not. ‘O Gods, why give us bodies with such power of love, if love’s a crime? Is there a choice at all? Answer, father Zeus, divine lover!’
Zeus’s answer comes as a vision. Paris must give an apple to the most beautiful of three goddesses, Athene, Hera and Aphrodite. These are models of the three women in his life, Hecuba, Andromache and Helen. By choosing Aphrodite he chooses Helen.
In the war that follows, the problem of choice shifts to Achilles, the Greek hero, who sits in his tent with his friend Patroclus, sulking after his quarrel with King Agamemnon.
Hector is scornful of Paris’s refusal to fight the Greeks. Priam intervenes to say that the Trojans must take advantage of the split between Achilles and Agamemnon, and attack instantly. Both his sons must take part in the fight, he says: ‘Vital alone that Paris learns to fight before Achilles regains his manhood.’
Achilles wonders whether he and Patroclus will return to their homeland after the war; the land where Achilles’ father and son, Neoptolemus, still live. Patroclus thinks more of the need for Achilles to arouse himself and avenge the Greeks who have been killed. Achilles’ pride is stung by this and he agrees to Patroclus’s plan that he should wear Achilles’ armour and fight in the hero’s place.
In the fight Patroclus at first rallies the Greek forces but is then slain by Hector. The Trojans are momentarily in the ascendant but Achilles’ war-cry is heard.
If the men are too involved in the war to find answers to life’s problems, what of the women? Are Hecuba, Andromache and Helen characters in their own right, or do they but reflect their husbands? Wherever the truth may be, they have no answers that can issue in successful action.
Achilles, roused to action by Patroclus’s death, kills Priam’s son Hector. When the news is brought to Priam his world collapses. His mind returns to the crucial first scene, and dimly he perceives that in accepting his fate he is accepting the tragic destiny of mankind.
Priam goes secretly to Achilles’ tent to beg for Hector’s body. The core of the scene lies in Achilles’ words: ‘Brutal Achilles has felt pity.’
Finally Priam is withdrawn entirely into his tragic world. Before the altar, as Troy burns, he cannot speak to Hecuba or Andromache, only to Paris and Helen. He is killed by Achilles’ son.
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