Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Hampstead Garden Opera presents Partenope-on-sea

“Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea!” And, it was off to the Victorian seaside that we went for Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of Handel’s Partenope - not so much for a stroll along the prom, rather for boisterous battles on the beach and skirmishes by the shore.

Henze's Phaedra: Linbury Theatre, ROH

A song of love and death, loss and renewal. Opera was born from the ambition of Renaissance humanists to recreate the oratorical and cathartic power of Greek tragedy, so it is no surprise that Greek myths have captivated composers of opera, past and present, offering as they do an opportunity to engage with the essential human questions in contexts removed from both the sacred and the mundane.

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - a world premiere

Is it in any sense aspirational to imitate - or even to try to create something original - based on one of Stockhausen’s works? This was a question I tried to grapple with at the world premiere of Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II.

The BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music join forces for Handel's Israel in Egypt

The biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is the defining event of Jewish history. By contrast, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has struggled to find its ‘identity’, hampered as it is by what might be termed the ‘Part 1 conundrum’, and the oratorio has not - despite its repute and the scholarly respect bestowed upon it - consistently or fully satisfied audiences, historic or modern.

Measha Brueggergosman: The Art of Song – Ravel to John Cage

A rather charming story recently appeared in the USA of a nine-year old boy who, at a concert given by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, let out a very audible “wow” at the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. I mention this only because music – whether you are neurotypical or not – leads to people, of any age, expressing themselves in concerts relative to the extraordinary power of the music they hear. Measha Brueggergosman’s recital very much had the “wow” factor, and on many distinct levels.

World premiere of Cecilia McDowall's Da Vinci Requiem

The quincentennial of the death Leonardo da Vinci is one of the major events this year – though it doesn’t noticeably seem to be acknowledged in new music being written for this.

Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In 1982, while studying in Germany, I had the good fortune to see Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear sung in München by the original cast, which included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Júlia Várady and Helga Dernesch. A few years later, I heard it again in San Francisco, with Thomas Stewart in the title role. Despite the luxury casting, the harshly atonal music—filled with quarter-tones, long note rows, and thick chords—utterly baffled my twenty-something self.

Berlioz’s Requiem at the Concertgebouw – earthshakingly stupendous

It was high time the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra programmed Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts. They hadn’t performed it since 1989, and what better year to take it up again than in 2019, the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death?

Matthew Rose and Friends at Temple Church

I was very much looking forward to this concert at Temple Church, curated by bass Matthew Rose and designed to celebrate music for voice commissioned by the Michael Cuddigan Trust, not least because it offered the opportunity to listen again to compositions heard recently - some for the first time - in different settings, and to experience works discussed coming to fruition in performance.

Handel's Athalia: London Handel Festival

There seems little to connect the aesthetics of French neoclassical theatre of the late-seventeenth century and English oratorio of the early-eighteenth. But, in the early 1730s Handel produced several compositions based on Racine’s plays, chief among them his Israelite-oratorios, Esther (1732) and Athalia (1733).

Ravel’s L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth

Although this concert was devoted to a single composer, Ravel, I was initially a little surprised by how it had been programmed. Thematically, all the works had the essence of Spain running through them - but chronologically they didn’t logically follow on from each other.

Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

Renaissance patronage was a phenomenon at once cultural, social, political and economic. Wealthy women played an important part in court culture and in religious and secular life. In particular, music, musical performances and publications offered a female ruler or aristocrat an important means of ‘self-fashioning’. Moreover, such women could exercise significant influence on the shaping of vernacular taste.

The Secrets of Heaven: The Orlando Consort at Wigmore Hall

Leonel Power, Bittering, Roy Henry [‘Henry Roi’?], John Pyamour, John Plummer, John Trouluffe, Walter Lambe: such names are not likely to be well-known to audiences but alongside the more familiar John Dunstaple, they were members of the generation of Englishmen during the Middle Ages whose compositions were greatly admired by their fellow musicians on the continent.

Manitoba Opera: The Barber of Seville

Manitoba Opera capped its season on a high note with its latest production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, sung in the key of goofiness that has inspired even a certain “pesky wabbit,” a.k.a. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

Handel and the Rival Queens

From Leonardo vs. Michelangelo to Picasso vs. Matisse; from Mozart vs. Salieri to Reich v. Glass: whether it’s Maria Callas vs. Renata Tebaldi or Herbert von Karajan vs. Wilhelm Furtwängler, the history of culture is also a history of rivalries nurtured and reputations derided - more often by coteries and aficionados than by the artists themselves.

Britten's Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House

“Billy always attracted me, of course, the radiant young figure; I felt there was going to be quite an opportunity for writing nice dark music for Claggart; but I must admit that Vere, who has what seems to me the main moral problem of the whole work, round [him] the drama was going to centre.”

Cool beauty in Dutch National Opera’s Madama Butterfly

It is hard to imagine a more beautifully sung Cio-Cio-San than Elena Stikhina’s.

Kurt Weill’s Street Scene

Kurt Weill’s “American opera,” Street Scene debuted this past weekend in the Kay Theatre at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, with a diverse young cast comprised of students and alumni of the Maryland Opera Studio (MOS).

Handel's Brockes-Passion: The Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican Hall

Perhaps it is too fanciful to suggest that the German poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680-1747) was the Metastasio of Hamburg?

POP Butterfly: Oooh, Cho-Cho San!

I was decidedly not the only one who thought I was witnessing the birth of a new star, as cover artist Janet Todd stepped in to make a triumphant appearance in the title role of Pacific Opera Project’s absorbing Madama Butterfly.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Ellie Dehn with Elizabeth Batton in William Walton's Troilus and Cressida.  Courtesy Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.  Copyright 2008 Ken Howard.
13 Jul 2008

Troilus triumphant in Saint Louis …..

For Sir William Walton, the protracted genesis of Troilus and Cressida must have seemed more akin to the agonies of Sisyphus than to the composition of an opera.

Sir William Walton: Troilus and Cressida

Troilus (Roger Honeywell); Cressida (Ellie Dehn); Pandarus (Robert Breault); Calkas (Darren K. Stokes); Evadne (Elizabeth Batton); Diomede (Mark S. Doss); Antenor (Aleksey Bogdanov). Conducted Antony Walker, directed Stephen Lawless, sets by Gideon Davey, costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, musicians of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis Chorus.

Ellie Dehn with Elizabeth Batton in William Walton's Troilus and Cressida.
All photos by Ken Howard courtesy Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

 

Walton and Christopher Hassall spent over six years laboriously crafting the libretto from nuggets of Chaucer, Boccaccio, and C.S. Lewis’s The Allegory of Love. The musical idiom likewise troubled Walton. He envisioned the opera as an heir to the bel canto tradition, but worried about strains of Wagner, Verdi, and Strauss always “popping their heads round the corner.” Casting problems dogged the 1954 Covent Garden premiere, and Troilus was ill-received at La Scala in 1956. Disheartened, Walton undertook major revisions for the 1963 Covent Garden revival. More revisions followed in 1976, including the alteration of Cressida’s original soprano tessitura into a mezzo-soprano vehicle for Dame Janet Baker. Despite these efforts, today Troilus and Cressida remains a relative rarity. Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s glorious new production is the first since Opera North in 1995, and the first American performance since the 1950s. Opera Theatre likewise premiered a new performing edition of the opera, which incorporates a revised orchestration and the original soprano tessitura. Beautifully sung and strikingly staged, hopefully this Troilus will encourage more frequent American performances.

In Behind the Façade, Susana Walton recalled her husband’s lament that he never found the right voices to sing Troilus. The role of Cressida particularly tormented him; Walton had written it for Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who never sang it onstage. Constantly trolling for the perfect Cressida, Walton even briefly tried to interest Callas in the role. Opera Theatre turned to gorgeous soprano Ellie Dehn, who truly dazzled as the Trojan priestess. Her Act II aria “At the haunted end of the day,” shimmered with mournful longing and finished with a gloriously resonant high C. Cressida’s music has some creatively creepy moments, such as Act III’s “O Tranquil Goddess.” Here Dehn’s excellent breath control helped delicately shape the piano high notes. The only vocal flaw lay in her diction, which was sometimes seemed a little lazy. Dehn’s greatest coup was her magnetic stage presence, proving Walton’s dictum that Cressida is the crux of the opera.

The role of Troilus was well served by Roger Honeywell’s puissant tenor voice, save a few oversung high notes. The quality of Troilus’s music, however, seems less consistent than Cressida’s. For Troilus’s main Act I aria, “Child of the wine-dark wave,” Walton composed a soaring vocal line with the standard love song signifiers of G-flat major and throbbing triple-time. Yet for all its obvious charms, this aria falls flat, through no fault of Honeywell’s. Dramatically, Honeywell and Dehn were a compelling couple, though Honeywell might tone down his occasionally histrionic gestures.

Tenor Robert Breault was stellar as Cressida’s pandering uncle Pandarus. His musical style famously parodies Benjamin Britten’s, with lots of falsetto, melismas, and odd repetitions. Pandarus is hard to judge; on one hand, he offers the only comic relief in Troilus and Cressida, and Breault certainly deserved enthusiastic applause for his fussily cheeky interpretation. On the other hand, I find a little of Pandarus’s music goes a very long way. By Act II, Breault’s well-executed melismas, such as the one on the words “embroidered satin,” just seemed annoying.

Walton noted in 1953 that Cressida’s servant Evadne “should be as good as we can find.” Opera Theatre seemed to follow his directive, given Elizabeth Batton’s beautifully creamy mezzo-soprano voice. Batton had terrific low notes, and her voice blended wonderfully with Dehn’s at the beginning of Act III. Bass-baritone Mark S. Doss imposingly interpreted Cressida’s rival suitor, the Grecian Prince Diomede. Doss’s voice is lusciously rich, with great diction. As High Priest Calkas, bass-baritone Darren K. Stokes was an amazing stage presence, but the voice didn’t carry particularly well.

The orchestra did a fine job negotiating Walton’s complicated score, and the revised orchestration certainly seemed both sufficient and transparent in a hall this size. Many of the short string solos were lovely, particularly Daniel Lee’s cello solos in Acts I and III. Act II’s famous interlude was properly full of yearning.

The sets and costumes were striking in their mix of austerity and sumptuousness. Director Stephen Lawless turned to wartime London for inspiration, particularly the claustrophobic “bunkers” of the Underground. Yet the stage looked less like the London underground than a mix of Downfall and Desert Storm. To some extent, the mixing of the modern and the antique is built into this opera, since Troilus’s original medieval story was transplanted to ancient Greece. The costume designer followed this bi-temporal impulse, with Trojan soldiers in modern metal helmets and the plumes of legionnaires. Cressida and Evadne’s beautiful Grecian dresses were covered with camouflage capes, and spears freely intermingled with contemporary military netting.

At times extraneous stage busyness detracted from the otherwise outstanding production. Walton consummated Troilus and Cressida’s union with an extended “pornographic interlude,” complete with action implied behind a scrim. Opera Theatre staged this beautifully, with Troilus and Cressida wrapping themselves in an enormous sheet and moving in suggestive poses. Paired with Mark McCullough’s splendid lighting and the crashing orchestral interlude, the onstage image was striking. Yet the directors added random “sidebar” interests during the interlude, such as someone being tortured stage right, Pandarus milling about, and finally soldiers crawling in to drag Troilus and Cressida offstage.

I was also mystified by changes to Troilus and Cressida’s dénouement. It took Walton and Hassall years of furious debate to decide the exact sequence of events, particularly concerning the deaths of Troilus and Cressida. Eventually they settled that Cressida’s father Calkas would traitorously stab Troilus in the back, causing the disgusted Diomede to banish him to Troy. Left alone onstage, Cressida seizes Troilus’s sword and stabs herself to end the opera. In Opera Theatre’s version, Calkas shot Troilus in the back. More bizarrely, Cressida ran offstage in the opera’s final bars. At the final drumbeat, an upstage door opened to reveal “Cressida” hanging in effigy from the walls of Troy, strangled by her red scarf. Not only did this significantly alter Walton and Hassall’s vision, the choice ultimately seemed to confuse the audience for no good reason.

Troilusone.pngRoger Honeywell as Troilus (center) with Robert Breault (seated) in William Walton's Troilus and Cressida.

These performances of Troilus were particularly poignant for Opera Theatre, given longtime Artistic Director Colin Graham’s passionate advocacy of Walton’s opera. Graham directed Troilus’s 1976 revival on a shoestring budget, and relished the idea of staging Troilus in Saint Louis. Due to his passing last year, Opera Theatre dedicated Troilus’s run to Graham’s memory. Let us hope Graham’s long-desired Saint Louis Troilus is only the first of many new productions.

Erin Brooks

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):