Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Proms Saturday Matinée 1

It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)

The Maid of Pskov (Pskovityanka) , St. Petersburg

I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.

Prom 11 — Grange Park Opera: Fiddler on the Roof

As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.

Saul, Glyndebourne

A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage

Roberta Invernizzi, Wigmore Hall

‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.

Montemezzi: L’amore dei tre Re

Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high. 

Prom 4: Andris Nelsons

The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.

BBC Proms: The Cardinall’s Musick

When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.

Oberon, Persephone and Iolanta at the Aix Festival

Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.

Betrothal and Betrayal : JPYA at the ROH

The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.

Jenůfa Packs a Wallop at DMMO

There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.

Des Moines Fanciulla a Minnie-Triumph

The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.

First Night of the BBC Proms 2015

First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.

Monsters and Marriage at the Aix Festival

Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.

Des Moines: A Whole Other Secret Garden

With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.

Seductive Abduction in Iowa

Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Garsington Opera

Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande

So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.

Richard Strauss: Arabella

I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.

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):