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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

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