The war cry of a pacifist : opera

King Priam Coliseum, London

Before the Visions of Paradise, apparitions of war. Sir Michael Tippett's 90th birthday retrospective began precipitately: the Coliseum plunged into sudden darkness, a din of martial fanfares, a volley of drums. Tippett's extraordinary opera King Priam begins as it means to go on, in pitiless splendour, all straining sinew and arrogant machismo. Once heard, Achilles's vengeful war cry is never forgotten, amplified to inhuman thresholds of pain. It takes a pacifist to understand war this well. With that understanding, comes a humanity that surfaces time and again in such instances as Priam's recurrent motif, "A father and a king", with its healing undertow of violas, cellos and basses. Tippett's opera reaches way beyond Greek mythology - it isabout us, our free will, the choices we make; it's about confronting, challenging the hand of fate. Mythological figures are made flesh here: heroes are made fallible, goddesses turn to scorned women before our eyes.

King Priam takes the heightened language of Greek tragedy and reinvents it for our times. And therein lies the strength of Tom Cairns's staging. Visually, Cairns comes up with a perfect complement to the sound of Tippett's score: a spare, angular, hard-edged modernity with shocks of luminous colour. A huge, upturned Greek urn serves as a symbol of instability. The hunting party in Scene II appears to have sprung to life from a painted frieze: ancient imagery in search of reality.

Priam's tragedy is made real for us. For that we should applaud Andrew Shore, a singer/ actor of extraordinary pathos.That great scene with Achilles, where he begs for the body of his son, is not easy to watch. Thomas Randle is thrillingly secure in the high tessitura of Achilles, not least in his Act 2 song, its guitar accompaniment as strange and timeless as the plangent piano colorations that ripple their way through the score. But this is a uniformly fine cast. The female roles are well differentiated between Janice Cairns's Hecuba (appropriately fierce and unruly of voice), the darker hues ofSusan Bickley (Andromache) and the still, concentrated Jean Rigby (Helen). Paul Daniel galvanises the battle-scarred orchestra. He and Tippett breathe as one.

So, too, Sir Colin Davis and Tippett. On Sunday, he led the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in an exalted performance of A Child of Our Time. The first performance - in March 1944 - offered hope for renewal in a world torn apart by war. This might easily have been the second. The piece is ageless. It's the absolute certainty of its musical gestures that make it so: from the two flutes and solo viola that bear witness in the winter of discontent, to the four voices (the outstanding soloists Deborah Riedel, Florence Quivar, Laurence Dale and the stentorian John Tomlinson) whose wordless plaints, like waves of compassion, lead us to the still waters of "Deep River".

n `Visions of Paradise' continues until 26 Feb at the Barbican, London EC2 (0171-638 4141)

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