Walton Troilus and Cressida

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Walton Troilus and Cressida

  • Troilus and Cressida

This is an opera which, I confess, has obsessed me for over 40 years, ever since I saw the first production at Covent Garden in December 1954. Now at last it receives a recording which lives up to all my hopes and more. It is here powerfully presented as an opera for the central repertory, traditional in its red-blooded treatment of a big classical subject, with the composer revelling in big, tonal melodies presented with many frisson-making modulations. Few if any operas since Puccini have such a rich store of instantly memorable tunes as Troilus and Cressida.
So what went wrong? Walton wrote the piece in the wake of the first great—and well-deserved—operatic success of his rival, Benjamin Britten. What more natural than for Walton, by this time no longer an enfant terrible of British music but an Establishment figure, to turn his back on operas devoted like Britten's to offbeat subjects, and to go back to an older operatic tradition using a classical love story, based on Chaucer (not Shakespeare). Though he was much praised for this by early critics in 1954, he was quickly attacked for being old-fashioned. Even when in the tautened version of the score he offered for the 1976 Covent Garden revival—with the role of the heroine adapted for the mezzo voice of Dame Janet Baker—the piece was described by one critic as a dodo. Yet as Richard Hickox suggests, fashion after 40 years matters little, and the success of the Opera North production in January suggests that at last the time has come for a big, warmly romantic, sharply dramatic work to be appreciated on its own terms.
As is explained on page 26, this recording was made under studio conditions during the run of the opera in Leeds. Arriving in double-quick time, the discs amply confirm what the live performances suggested, that Walton's tautening of the score, coupled with a restoration of the original soprano register for Cressida, has provided the answer. Hickox, who first fell in love with the piece at the time of the 1976 Covent Garden revival, conducts a performance that is magnetic from beginning to end. If the First Act, setting out a complex plot, has always been the principal problem, both for Walton and his librettist, Christopher Hassall, during the composition and latterly in staging the opera, this recorded performance, with natural tensions reflecting stage experience, gives the crispest exposition. Each development is unerringly heightened by Walton's music, whether in choral writing as electric, often violent, as that in Belshazzar's Feast, or in an atmospheric scene-painting, or in the melodic warmth of the heartfelt music illustrating the love of Troilus and Cressida.
Walton wrote the opera soon after his marriage to his young wife, Susana, during their early years in Ischia. The score bears a dedication to her, and plainly the opera reflects Walton's new happiness, which he cherished the more in reaction to the painful death of his previous partner, Alice, lady Wimborne. Until near the end of his life Walton was very cagey indeed a bout revealing his private life, but now more clearly than ever with this recording we can see this, his only full-length opera, as a watershed work in his career, at once the last of the electrically intense, passionately romantic works which marked the first half of his career, and the first of the refined, more reflective works of the post-War period.
The scene is atmospherically set in Act 1 by the chorus, initially off-stage, but then ever more Belshazzar-like, with the incisive Opera North chorus snapping out thrilling cries of ''We are accurs'd!''. Hassall's libretto is unashamedly archaic in its use of 'opera-speak' like that, with ''thee''s and ''thou''s and the occasional ''perchance''. Though the text may put some off, it is plainly apt for a traditional 'well-made opera' on a classical subject. The first soloist one hears in the High Priest, Calkas, Cressida's father, about to defect to the Greeks, and the role is superbly taken by the firm, dark-toned Clive Bayley. Some have regretted Walton's decision to cut Calkas's big monologue in Act 1, one of the most substantial passages omitted, but here thanks to Bayley the character is very clearly established without it.
Troilus's entry and his declaration of love for Cressida bring Waltonian sensuousness and the first statements of the soaring Cressida theme. More than his predecessors on disc—Richard Cassilly in the complete recording made at Covent Garden in 1977 and even Richard Lewis in Walton's own earlier recording of excerpts (EMI, 1/94)—Arthur Davies is not afraid of using his head voice for pianissimos, so contrasting the more dramatically with the big outbursts and his ringing top notes. This is a younger-sounding hero, more Italianate of tone than either the Heldentenor, Cassilly, or the very English-sounding Lewis. Similarly, Judith Howarth's Cressida is much more girlish than either Dame Janet Baker in the Covent Garden set (now due for release on CD) or Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf on the Walton excerpts disc. More than those great predecessors Judith Howarth brings out the vulnerability of the character along with sweetness and warmth. After Calkas has defected to the Greeks, her cry of ''He has deserted us and Troy!'' conveys genuine fear, with her will undermined.
It is surprising that in lowering the tessitura of the role for Dame Janet Walton did not have to transpose much more of the role. Cressida's final agonized solo in Act 3 before her suicide remains substantially at the same pitch, but the final high outburst then makes all the difference, a thrilling climax with Howarth delivering a shining top B. Cressida's solos in the Act 2 love scene—starting with ''At the haunted end of the day''—are largely a minor third higher in the soprano version, adding tenderness and again vulnerability. I am glad, too, that the climax of the duet has been restored as in the original, with the ''Aphrodite'' phrases expanded. The only tiny cut I have noted here beyond the Covent Garden text comes in Act 1 in Cressida's final exchanges with Calkas before he defects, where the off-stage chorus on Walton's suggestion has been eliminated. All told, I am in no doubt that though some fine music has been cut, the tautened version is far more effective both musically and dramatically, with no longueurs at all. It all leads to the big set-piece sextet at the climax of Act 3, before Cressida's last solo, an old-style culmination that works in a way you can compare with the Meistersinger Quintet or the Rosenkavalier Trio.
Rather like Gerald English—Pandarus in the Covent Garden recording—Nigel Robson does not try to echo the original tenor, Sir Peter Pears, for whom the role was written. With the campness muted, the character becomes an urbane know-all, manipulating everyone. The musical characterization, as well as Hassall's text, are aptly pointed here, and the sly echoes of Britten's writing for Pears—as in the melismatic triplets for the witty passage as he leaves the lovers, ''He seems to have reached the kneeling stage''—remain as effective as ever. The role of Diomede, Cressida's Greek suitor, can seem one-dimensional, but Alan Opie in one of his finest performances on record sharpens the focus, making him a genuine threat, with the element of nobility fully allowed. As Antenor, James Thornton sings strongly, but is less steady than the others, while Yvonne Howard is superb in the mezzo role of Evadne, Cressida's treacherous servant and confidante. With such firm, rich tone the only danger is that the voice can be confused with that of Cressida, even though the dangers were obviously greater when Cressida too was a mezzo. Not just the chorus but the orchestra of Opera North, the English Northern Philharmonia, respond with fervour. Naturally and idiomatically they observe the Waltonian rubato and the lifting of jazzily syncopated rhythms which Hickox as a dedicated Waltonian instils, echoing the composer's own example.
As for the recorded sound, it brings a complete contrast with the dry Covent Garden acoustic on the old EMI complete set, now due for CD reissue, or even the close-up mono sound of the Walton extracts. The bloom of the Leeds Town Hall acoustic allows the fullest detail from the orchestra, enhancing the Mediterranean warmth of the score, helped by the wide dynamic range. The many atmospheric effects, often offstage, are clearly and precisely focused, and the placing of voices on the stereo stage is unusually precise too. The complete Walton Chandos Edition could not have been rounded off with a more fulfilling set. R1 '9505140'

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