INKPOT#78 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: WALTON Troilus and Cressida. Various/Opera North/English Northern Phil/Hickox (Chandos)
Sir William WALTON (1902-1983)
Troilus and Cressida
Opera in three acts. Libretto by Christopher HassallCressida Judith Howarth soprano
Troilus Arthur Davies tenor
Calkas Clive Bayley bass
Diomede Akan Opie baritone
Evadne Yvonne Howard mezzo-soprano
Pandarus Nigel Robson tenor
Antenor James Thornton baritone
Horaste David Owen-Lewis bass
A Priest Peter Bodenham baritone
A Soldier Keith Mills tenor
Chorus of the Opera North English Northern Philharmonia
conducted by Richard Hickox
Notes and Synopsis in English, German, French and Italian.
This review is kindly sponsored by HMV Singapore
CHANDOS CHAN 9370/1
2 discs [133:04] full-price
by Ng Yeuk Fan
Inktroduction. What are the challenges faced by a composer intent on embarking on a new project in clearly the most complicated of all art forms? The current staples in opera consists of a few undoubted names like Mozart, Verdi, Puccini and Wagner. Others would consider even the world of Purcell, Bellini and Richard Strauss as mainstays in opera. I do not disagree.
But you ask my point? Opera is not like concert music, which through concertising and recordings can achieve the much needed fame that would make or break them. Opera must be watched in a theatre. It is essentially drama told through music. And the creation of new productions (lights, costumes, sets, singers, technicians, orchestra… just to mention a few) are costly beyond the reach of most opera companies. Few opera companies are not in debt or running marginally red every year. This makes for a situation which seems diresome to the art form’s continued existence.
Yet we see no end to the creation of new members in this genre. There are no lack of attempts to create new operas, even now, despite few ever making their first premiere. Lucky composers include names like Rautavaara, Sallinen, Birtwistle, Turnage and Glass, and not so long ago Walton. These either had the support of rich financial commissions by governmental organisations in need of a new glitterati event (indeed, Opera shall never be disassociated from its egoist supporters) or else they had built around themselves too magnificient a reputation to be ignored. Walton was one such man. He was made a knight of the British Empire through his endless musical endeavours. His unblemished record even includes the creation of music for the current Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation.Above right: Portrait of William Walton by Michael Ayrton.
Painted in 1948, the time Walton began writing Troilus and Cressida.
As such, Walton need never have worried that his music would not be performed. Indeed, it is often said that although he composed relatively slowly, every new work of his was awaited with great anticipation. But why does everyone choose to crown their achievements with an opera? Walton was acutely aware of Benjamin Brittens success in the field of opera and his answer to this was Troilus and Cressida, a story which should be familar enough. However, though Walton was comfortable working for the voice, he was not acutely aware of the mechanics of an opera or what might or might not work theatrically. The result was a long drawn effort (6 years) that was to cause him tiresome work and much worry.
He was to never write another opera. Nevertheless, the results are more than effective. The music might not be catchy signature tunes or passionately bloody arias (Walton was far more subtle) but it is always dramatically convincing, sound and of very astute taste. With repeated listening, Troilus and Cressida makes a good English opera to add to anyone’s collection.
The Plot. Basically, the two main title characters are found in ancient Troy, at the desperate time of being besieged by the Greeks. Cressida’s father, Calkas, a high priest in Troy, announces that the oracle has advised that Troy should surrender. This divides the people and sets the stage for conflict between the supporting characters of the story. Amidst all this, Troilus, the son of King Priam, tries to woo the unmoving Cressida, who has sworn not to love again after her previous husband fell in battle.
Helped by a devious Pandarus, brother of Calkas, Troilus is set up with Cressida whose resolve in her oath is quickly weakened at his charming advances. The two make ecstastic love as depressing events quicken in Troy amidst news that Calkas has defected to Greece. In the morning after, Diomede, commander of the Greeks, arrives at Pandarus’ residence to reunite Cressida with her father in Greece in an exchange of ‘prisoners’ agreed between Troy and Greece. Diomede is filled with wonder at her beauty while the two lovers are seperated with promises of fidelity.
Ten weeks pass without any word from Troilus; a saddened Cressida agonises at the dilemma of Diomede’s advances, struggling with her father’s reproach for her coldness towards the Grecian commander and her increasing acceptance of Diomede’s charms. Cressida does not know that Evadne, her servant, has been told by Calkas to conceal all messages from the Trojan suitor. Her despair leads her to throw herself at Diomedes, who orders a wedding prepared to make her Queen of Argos.
Troilus arrives in an hour of truce to meet Cressida, who laments that all is too late. Diomedes then arrive with the Greek camp for the wedding but meets Troilus, who claims Cressida for himself. Unable to renounce Troilus’ love on Diomede’s demand, Cressida is turned against by the Greeks. Troilus battles with Diomedes but is mortally wounded from behind by Calkas. The Greeks reject Calkas in view of Cressidas falseness and sends him back to Troy. As for Cressida, they intend to keep her as a prisoner but forlorn, she cheats her captors by taking her own life.
The Recording. This production is in an exceptional class by any standards. Walton’s music is full of waxing and waning but is always superbly ‘Romantic’. This is not to say it is mushy stuff – I mean it to be first-class examples of how to write ‘Romantic’ music with a modern palette of notes. Yet, this is exactly what needs getting used to – Walton’s intervals grow on you and the dramatic wisdom of his music reveals itself once one gets accustomed to his musical colours. There isn’t a more evocative love scene in modern music that I can remember, nor is there such uniquely effective tapestries of thrilling tension seen here in his Storm music and the opening chorus.
The English Northern Philharmonia plays with impressive elegance and spacious precision, capturing Walton’s distinct musical stamp with refined wit. One is amazed by the quality of the many soloists, especially the winds, in this orchestra as Walton’s music requires plenty of them. Truly a bunch of first-class musicians with first class instruments – beautiful tone which adds to the enjoyment of the Waltonian soundscape. Richard Hickox’s directs with elastic stability, a generous dash of excitement and sweet tenderness that makes the entire opera very satisfying, structurally and dramatically. Listen to his reading of the Storm – such panache well within the claves of romantic fervor!
The chorus responds well to his direction and produces effective contrast to the orchestral colours, creating a strong aural image of a city thrown into chaos. The lineup of soloists (left) for this production is equally good. Troilus, sung by Arthur Davies, is warm and sensitive in his portrayal, but perhaps a bit too mature and too dark for my liking. Dark and mature tenors have a way of dragging down the music and this has no point here. Nonetheless, his beautiful tenor range remains consistent throughout all registers and is very easy to listen to. Judith Howarth is a chesty soprano in the role of Cressida. Though undoubtedly a soprano, I somehow seem to hear more mezzo in her. Ms Howarth has a beautiful warm lower range than suits much of Walton’s music. Her top notes remain dark but beautiful as she ascends. The result is a voice that conveys much of the sadness that befalls this unfortunate Cressida. The role has been transposed for the great mezzo Janet Baker – but somehow, this interpretation marries the greatness of both versions.
Pandarus is played by the brillant tenor Nigel Robson. Though a minor role, he creates atmosphere with his voice; hear him in “‘Tis not unknown to persons in the know…”. He is entirely comfortable in English and his nuances make English opera accessible to ears attuned to Italian and German mediums. Clive Bayley has a deep rich bass voice that is truly evocative and absolutely suitable for the role of the high priest Calkas. Diomede sung by baritone Alan Opie is a jewel of an addition to this already diamond-studded cast. Solid, focussed and terrifyingly threatening in “My name is Diomede”, matched by Walton’s superb music, he is simply first-class.
This is altogether an extremely satisfying production. If you are sick of your regular tuberculosis-struck heroines (Violetta and Mimi) and berserk sopranos (Tosca, Salom), Troilus is a good way to spend exploration dollars to begin a much belated foray into the depths of English opera. Indeed, there must be life after Puccini, Verdi and Mozart and Walton gives them a run for their worth.William Walton Website
In Singapore, this set is available at or can be ordered from HMV (The Heeren), Borders (Wheelock Place) or Tower (Suntec City).
Ng Yeuk Fan battles the Ca(OH)2 that keeps seeping from his floor no matter how many times he wipes it. Huff puff.
506: 1.6.1999 Ng Yeuk Fan