Hickox conducts Walton – 28th March

Troilus and Cressida – Opera in three acts to a libretto by Christopher Hassall

Cast in order of appearance
Calkas – Eric Owens (bass)
Antenor – Matthew Brook (baritone)
Troilus – Bonaventura Bottone (tenor)
Cressida – Janice Watson (soprano)
Pandarus – Nigel Robson (tenor)
Evadne – Jean Rigby (mezzo-soprano)
Soldier – Paul Bradley (tenor)
Priest & Horaste – James Gower (bass)
Diomede – Roderick Williams (baritone)

London Symphony Chorus
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Richard Hickox

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 28 March, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

As Michael Kennedy remarked towards the end of BBC Radio 3’s admirable “Walton Day” (31 March), people have been arguing about Troilus and Cressida for fifty years and are still no nearer deciding if it is the masterpiece that some Waltonians firmly believe or the “dodo” that is was famously called during one of its few revivals some years ago. Having looked and listened tothe piece again – both on CD and in this performance (which served as the culminating event of the South Bank’s Walton Festival) – I find myself caught somewhere between the two extremes. There is some glorious music in it – but it is badly let down by one of the worst librettos since time began (“IvorNovelloish” the composer called it – if only it was good as that!). The First Act is far too long with some thin characterisation and unfortunate ’rip-offs’ from other composers (notably Britten) which might be amusing to begin with but only too quickly become irksome and mannered.

Brickbats first! Pandarus really is the most irritating of characters – it is never made clear why he wants to bring the two lovers together; surely he is something more than an upper-class pimp! Poor Nigel Robson had the added problem of having to sing ever-more exaggerated Brittenesque arpeggios and melismata all night – if this is, as has long been assumed, a parody of the younger composer’s vocal writing then it wears thin pretty quickly. Calkas (father of Cressida) is again a totally one-dimensional character, where as not even Jean Rigby’s customary fine performance (infact one of the finest of the whole evening) could elevate Evadne to anything more than the dour matronly figure that she is.

The storm scene that links Acts One and Two is the most embarrassing of all (it is left to the audience’s imagination as to what is going on in the bedroom in a semi-staged performance such as this) – it is, let us say, a not too distant cousin of the ’Storm Interlude from Peter Grimes. Even in a performance of such drive and virtuosity as this one (Richard Hickox obviously loves the work and inspired the Philharmonia Orchestra to give their very best and demonstrate Walton’s orchestration at its most brilliant), it is just too close for comfort.

On the positive side – Acts Two and Three moved much more swiftly – the singing of the two principals, which up to this point had been rather lack-lustre, improved greatly. Roderick Williams stole the Third Act – not only does he have a fine voice and striking stage presence, he was probably the best matched singer/character of the whole evening. The closing ’Sextet’, so reminiscent of Verdi, was beautifully done and only shows what Walton might have come up with under the right circumstances.

Make no mistake, and despite its failings, this is striking first opera. Walton himself admitted, “I didn’t know enough about the theatre and what would work theatrically”. The relative failure of Troilus and Cressida, its initial reception, and the composer’s difficulty in getting notes on paper are presumably the reasons for Walton not attempting another full-length opera (The Bear is a one-act ’Extravaganza’). If so, then it is our loss.

  • Richard Hickox’s recording of Troilus and Cressida is on CHANDOS CHAN 9370/1 (2 CDs)
  • The Philharmonia Orchestra returns to the Royal Festival Hall on 30 April for the first of two concerts entitled “The Mighty Handful” – Mikhail Pletnev conducts Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel) and Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto with Alexander Mogilevsky. On 5 May, Yevgeny Svetlanov conducts Scriabin, Liadov, Balakirev and Sibelius’s Violin Concerto with Viktoria Mullova
  • Box Office: 0800 652 6717 www.rfh.org.uk
  • Philharmonia Orchestra Box Office: 020 7242 0240 (freephone service from 2 May 2002)
  • www.philharmonia.co.uk

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