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King Priam Synopsis

Act 1

King Priam takes a private view of the events of the Trojan War, focusing on individual moments of moral choice. The opera begins soon after the birth of Paris, when an Old Man prophesies that the baby will grow up to cause his father's death. Queen Hecuba immediately declares that her child must be killed. Priam hesitates, but reflects, "What means one life when the choice involves a whole city?" and gives the baby to the Young Man to be abandoned on a mountainside.

Left alone, the Old Man, the Young Man, and the child's Nurse discuss Priam's choice. These three characters will return throughout the opera to comment on the action from their differing perspectives. Sensing Priam's true feelings the Young Man does not kill the baby, but gives him to shepherds to raise as their own.

Years later, Priam is hunting on the mountain with his eldest son, Hector. Hector attempts to subdue a wild bull, but a strange child leaps onto its back and rides away. The child returns, asks to join Hector among the heroes of Troy, and says his name is Paris. Priam is filled with joy that his secret wish was fulfilled, and he welcomes Paris back to Troy as its prince, whatever the consequences may be. The Nurse and the Old and Young Man observe this reversal with foreboding, but are interrupted by revellers at the wedding of Hector and Andromache. The guests gossip that Hector and Paris never became friendly, and that Paris has left Troy for the court of Menelaus in Sparta.

In Sparta, Paris and Helen have already become lovers. Paris wonders if there is any choice in life at all - he feels pulled irresistibly toward Helen by a force greater than himself. As if in answer to his question, the god Hermes appears, and instructs him to choose between three goddesses: Athene, Hera, and Aphrodite, whose roles are sung by Hecuba, Andromache, and Helen. Athene/Hecuba offers Paris glory in war, Hera/Andromache offers domestic peace, but Aphrodite/Helen simply says his name, and he responds with hers, his choice made unconsciously. The other two goddesses curse him, foretelling the doom he will bring to Troy.

Act 2

Troy is under siege. In the city, Hector taunts Paris with cowardice for having run away from Menelaus in battle. Scolded by Priam, the brothers return to the fight together. The Old Man, fearful for Troy, calls on Hermes and asks to be shown Achilles, hero of the Greeks.

Achilles has withdrawn from battle, and the scene in his tent is a peaceful one, as he sings to his friend Patroclus a lyrical song of their home, "O rich soiled land," accompanied by solo guitar. But Patroclus is ashamed that Achilles will not fight, and asks to be allowed to go into battle wearing Achilles' armor, so that the Greeks will take hope from the sight of their greatest warrior. Achilles agrees, and offers a libation to the gods for Patroclus' safety.

Watching invisibly under the protection of Hermes, the Old Man begs the god to warn Priam of the danger, but in Troy, Paris is already announcing to the king that Hector has slain Patroclus in single combat. The father and sons sing a trio of thanks for the victory, but they are interrupted by the chilling sound of Achilles' war-cry, taken up and echoed by the Greek army. Greece's greatest warrior has returned to the field in a berserk fury.

Act 3

In Hector's bedchamber, Andromache sits and waits for her husband. She remembers with terror the day Achilles killed her father and brothers. Queen Hecuba enters and tells her to save Hector by going to the walls of Troy and calling him out of battle. Andromache refuses, asking why Priam will not end the war by returning the stolen Helen to her own husband. Hecuba scoffs that no war was fought for a woman: Helen may be the pretext, but the great city of Troy is the Greek's real prize. Helen herself now enters, and Andromache relieves her feelings with a volley of insults. Helen responds with a virtuoso aria claiming that erotic passion is greater than either morality or politics, that her love "touches Heaven, because it stretches down to Hell." Finding no comfort in sisterhood, the three women make separate prayers, each to the goddess she represented in the first act.

Helen and Hecuba go, and a serving-woman enters to ask if she should light the fire for Hector's evening bath. Denying her instinctive knowledge of his death, Andromache answers "Yes...yes," but her slave mockingly echoes "," as the servants are first to hear all the bad news. Andromache runs out in despair, and the serving-woman is joined by a chorus of slaves who comment cynically: "We could tell the story too, the pathetic story of our masters, viewed from the corridor."

Paris brings King Priam the news of Hector's death. Priam curses his surviving son, wishing him dead as well, and Paris goes, swearing not to return until he has killed Achilles in revenge. Alone, Priam weeps that Old Man years ago spoke only of his own death, not of Hector's. The Old Man, the Young Man, and the Nurse appear and question the king: "One son to live by another's death, is that the law of life you favour?" Priam weakly tries to answer "Yes...yes," but an unseen chorus replies "": his heart's answer.

Hermes guides Priam to Achilles' tent. In a quiet scene, Priam kisses Achilles' hands, "the hands of him who slew my son" and begs to be given Hector's body for burial. Achilles agrees, and the two look ahead to their own deaths: Achilles to be killed by Paris, and Priam to be killed by Neoptolemus, Achilles' son.

Troy is in ruins. Priam refuses to leave his city, and one by one his family leaves him. His last farewell is with Helen, to whom he speaks gently. There is a moment of stillness before Achilles' son appears to strike the killing blow and Hermes, the drama over, departs for Olympus.