Saturday, June 28, 2008

Troy Weight

William Walton's 1954 opera Troilus and Cressida has had a history almost as unfortunate as that of its protagonists. From the lackluster Covent Garden premiere, sloppily conducted by an ill-prepared and hostile Malcolm Sargent, through repeated revivals and revisions, this tale of star-crossed lovers in the final years of the Trojan War has acquired a reputation as something of operatic problem child. It wasn't until the 1976 revival - once again at Covent Garden and once again beset by production problems - that the composer, now Sir William Walton, finally received the critical praise he had long deserved for this dark, emotionally charged work.

Revision of the opera continued even after the composer's death, and so it is that Opera Theatre of St. Louis is presenting the world premiere of the latest and (presumably) last version of Troilus and Cressida. The road to St. Louis has been long and winding, but judging from the generally splendid results on view at the Loretto-Hilton Center this past Wednesday night, the journey was well worth it.

The libretto, by actor, lyricist and playwright Christopher Hassall, is based largely on Chaucer's poem Troilus and Criseyde rather than on the somewhat more familiar Shakespearean tragedy. Unlike the many previous versions of the story, in which priestess of Pallas Athena is held up as an example of female inconstancy (a favorite theme of male writers), the Hassall/Walton collaboration clearly depicts Cressida as far more sinned against than sinning - a largely powerless victim of male arrogance and foolishness. Like the pawns in the metaphorically significant chess game which she plays in the second act, Cressida is shuffled about by powers far larger than herself.

In both the original and newest versions of opera, the role of Cressida calls for a dramatic soprano with a wide range and powerful voice. Ellie Dehn, making her OTSL debut, has all that and more. Statuesque and displaying an impressive stage presence, Dehn is as fine an actress as she is a singer - and she's a damned impressive singer. Her second act love scene with Troilus - underscored by Walton's sensuous music - is one of the steamier things I've seen on the Opera Theatre stage in many a year.

Tenor Roger Honeywell is equally strong as the Trojan prince Troilus, utterly believable both as yearning lover and valiant warrior. For this piece to work at all there has to be credible chemistry between the title characters. Mr. Honeywell and Ms. Dehn provide that in quantities sufficient to get over some of the speed bumps in the libretto's first act.

Some of the most remarkable singing comes from tenor Robert Breault as Cressida's fey uncle Pandarus, whose attempts to unite the lovers are undone by royal politics. The role was written for and first performed by Peter Pears and it's hard not to hear echoes of the great British tenor's wide-ranging, flexible voice (to say nothing of the music of his partner, Benjamin Britten) in the role's florid vocal lines. Breault - a late substitution for Stanford Olsen, who was sidelined by a torn tendon - negotiates the many difficult passages with ease and is a solid comic actor.

The principal villains of the piece - Cressida's treasonous father Calkas and the arrogant Greek prince Diomede - are played with considerable gravitas by bass-baritones Darren K. Stokes and Mark S. Doss. Both characters are written with just enough depth to raise them above the level of stock villainy, thereby making them all the more repellent. Doss, in particular, does an excellent job of brining out Diomede's smug self-admiration.

Other fine performances include mezzo Elizabeth Batton as Cressida's duplicitous servant Evadne and baritone Aleksy Bogdanov as Troilus' friend Antenor.

Conductor Antony Walker leads the orchestra with great relish, clearly enjoying every minute of Walton's lush, intelligent score. Sandra Horst's chorus appears in only a handful of scenes, but makes a powerful impression when it does so - particularly in the massive ensemble towards the end of the second act.

Director Stephen Lawless and set designer Gideon Davey have given us a Troy that's a gray, claustrophobic mix of classical and modern design elements, contrasting with a starkly bright Greek camp lit by harsh golden light. I'm not convinced that it all works as a concept, especially in the final act when the treacherous Calkas kills Troilus not by stabbing him in the back as called for in the libretto but by having him shot by a sentry. Up to that point, everyone has been brandishing knives and swords, so the sudden introduction of a modern weapon seems bizarre.

Cressida's death scene is also given a curiously anti-climactic staging. Rather than stabbing herself with Troilus' sword, director Lawless has Ms. Dehn wind the crimson scarf that has served as a token of her love for Troilus around her neck and then pull aside a trap door to reveal a dummy hanging from an identical scarf. The actress then runs offstage, leaving the audience briefly wondering what, exactly, has just happened.

These are minor complaints, however, about an otherwise brilliantly realized production of a rarely-seen opera rich in drama and offering an embarrassment of musical riches. It's a work that resonates, to a degree, with the contemporary political scene as well, given its gimlet-eyed, anti-heroic view of war and the way in which a prolonged siege of a weaker nation by a stronger one has a corrupting influence on both. Sometimes there are truths that only fiction can adequately reveal to us.

Opera Theatre's compelling production of Troilus and Cressida runs through June 29th. Of the three OTSL productions I've seen this year (my own performance commitments prevented me from seeing Madame Butterfly) this was clearly the most consistent musical and dramatic success. It's a "must see" for anyone who enjoys intelligent musical theatre. It's also a fitting tribute to Opera Theatre's late Artistic Director, Colin Graham, who was a long-time champion of the work and friend of the composer. For ticket information, call 314-961-0644 or visit the web site, .

1 comment:

Chip Michael said...

I don't know this opera, but am going to look it up. As a composer working on a new opera, the years of work Sir Walton put into his Troilus and Cressida makes me question the sanity of attempting such a project.

I do find it interesting the female is written to be helpless as is Brittan's Lucrecia. Personally, I hope my lead characters (greek godesses of Fate) prove to be stronger willed women.