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Sir William Walton

Walton’s ‘Troilus and Cressida’ at Covent Garden

1954. Royal Opera House, London
Recording of the first performance at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden of Walton's opera 'Troilus and Cressida'.
Composer Sir William Walton
Conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent
Singers Magda Laszlo, Richard Lewis
Ensemble Covent Garden Opera
Genre Opera

Sir William Walton 1913–1983

Troilus and Cressida
Opera in three acts · Libretto by Christopher Hassall

Troilus and Cressida: The premiere

The Covent Garden Opera’s 1954-55 season featured four new productions: The Tales of Hoffmann, The Bartered Bride and two new creations, opening less than two months apart, William Walton’s Troilus and Cressida and Michael Tippett’ The Midsummer Marriage. For the first time since the 1860s, two British operas premiered within a single season.

The creation of new English opera was a fundamental aim of the establishment of a permanent company after the Second World War. Part of Boosey and Hawkes’s manifesto in 1945; it was also the expressed intention of the committee on Opera on which Walton advised. Britten’s Peter Grimes re-opened Sadler’s Wells after the war, but soon moved to the grander surroundings of the Royal Opera House, to be followed by Billy Budd in 1951 and Gloriana in 1953. Counting the three chamber operas, Britten’s output in the decade after the war included six operas which have retained a hold on the repertory – an astonishing achievement and a challenge to his contemporaries.

Walton was a more reluctant opera composer. Commissioned to write one by the BBC, he took time to decide on a subject and a librettist. His eventual choice of a classical theme and of Christopher Hassall was inevitably seen as a traditional, even retrograde step; whereas the rival Michael Tippett, whose opera was composed without a commission, had opted for a contemporary comedy with mythic dimensions. The Earl of Harewood, who worked at Covent Garden at that time, told me many years later that the juxtaposition of the two operas divided the company into two opposing camps of supporters. At 31, Harewood was firmly on the side of Tippett, whose Jungian pretentions confused the senior generation who preferred Walton’s more conventional craftsmanship.

By the time of the composition of Troilus and Cressida, Walton had settled in Ischia, and he longed for his opera to be taken up by La Scala Milan. Partly for that reason he wanted a big name singer for the star role of Cressida. Schwarzkopf, Callas, Tebaldi and Steber were all approached without success. The eventual choice was the beautiful Hungarian soprano Magda Laszlo, a seductive performer familiar as Glyndebourne’s Alceste and, later, Poppea, but an imperfect English speaker. The other important guest was Peter Pears, who gallantly defied doctor’s orders to save the premiere of the opera on 3 December 1954.

Troilus and Cressida notched up twelve performances in its opening season and a further five during 1955/56, an impressive total. Compare The Midsummer Marriage’s opening run of five performances, followed by only two more in 1956/57.

My first experience of the opera was the first major revival in 1963, when Cressida was played by the vibrant Marie Collier. The staging was memorable with imposing architectural set designs by Hugh Casson. If the text already sounded antique and the musical inspiration, especially in Act I, fitful, the best of it – the love music of Act 2 and Cressida’s lonely farewell in Act 3 – burned with a passionate fire, testament to Walton’s own passion for his young wife Susana and his command of the big orchestral canvas.

© Nicholas Payne, 2014

Troilus and Cressida: The background

William Walton had begun to think about an opera (with Osbert Sitwell) as early as 1933. By 1941 he was discussing a libretto on the wife-murdering composer Gesualdo with the writer Cecil Gray, before the score for Laurence Olivier’s Henry V intervene. In 1947 the BBC finally commissioned an opera from him, recommending as librettist the writer Christopher Hassall, best known for his work with Ivor Novello on shows such as Glamorous Night (1935) and The Dancing Years (1939). The following seven years would be taken up with what Malcolm Hayes calls ‘the love of Walton’s creative life’, the opera Troilus and Cressida, based more on Chaucer than Shakespeare.

Correspondence between composer in Ischia and librettist in London is full of Walton’s habitual pessimism (‘I need hardly say I am doing worse even than usual and am at the moment at a complete standstill & see no signs of a move’), criticism of Hassall’s lyrics (‘none of which seem to work’) and professional background (‘you tend again to evoke this appalling streak of neo-Novelloismo’) and de haut en bas advice (‘you should go to Boosey & Hawkes & buy the libretti in English of Aida and Otello’). Walton even brought in W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman to hack Hassall’s Act III to bits and provide alternatives. He worried continually, mostly to the producer Walter Legge for whose wife Elisabeth Schwarzkopf he believed he was writing the role of Cressida.

Troilus and Cressida’s great strength was its sheer variety. Film scores had taught Walton never to be boring. He calculated the length, style and colour of successive numbers with the precision of a Broadway professional. But the opera’s form baffled critics, opera houses and their casting directors. Despite the presence of a chorus and set arias, duets and ensembles – like the Sextet that Auden persuaded Walton would cement the final act – the pace and rhythm of Troilus were of the 1950s. It was no old-fashioned number opera struggling for survival in the wake of the supposedly modern, Berg-influenced Peter Grimes, nor ‘an Italian tragic opera written in English by an English composer’ (Malcolm Hayes) nor, quite, the smart contemporary observation by Harold Rosenthal that ‘the combination of Walton and Hassall produced an English opera rather in the manner of Zandonai or Montemezzi’. The biggest influences on the music of Troilus were, in no particular order, Gershwin (especially Porgy and Bess), Britten’s Peter Grimes (which Walton did not like but to whose recitatives, accompaniments and harmonic coups like the launching of Ellen Orford’s Act I monologue, he had listened carefully) and film music, his own The First of the Few and Henry V included.

Erratic choices of cast (the beautiful but non-English speaking Hungarian Magda Laszlò became the first Cressida) and conductor (Sir Malcolm Sargent, who had had no opera experience since 1936) did not help the 1954 London opening. In revisions over the next 15 years, Walton revised and focused his opera more on the lovers, cutting the bass Calkas’s explanatory political monologues in Acts I and III and some of Diomede’s flirtation with Cressida, thus making the heroine more sympathetic. The arts writer Gillian Widdicombe suggested to the composer that the mezzo-soprano Janet Baker (who at the time was singing Monteverdi’s Poppaea and other early music) would make an ideal Cressida, as well as being a box-office draw. Walton agreed and set about making some adjustments to the vocal line to accommodate this; he also worked on libretto changes with Covent Garden’s intended stage director Colin Graham. Despite a tight budget and the withdrawal of the intended conductor, Walton’s new champion André Previn, the revival and the new, shorter version were a public success, and Walton believed that he had reached a definitive version of his score.

© Mike Ashman

It is the tenth year of the Trojan War – ten long and bloody years since the Greeks besieged the city of Troy because the Trojan prince, Paris, had eloped with Helen, wife of the Greek king Menelaus. The elopement was assisted by Aphrodite, Goddess of Love; however, the other gods looked less kindly upon it, and have abandoned the Trojan city – the most vengeful being Pallas Athene, patron goddess of Troy. To make matters worse, Paris and Helen were further helped by the High Priest of Pallas Athene, Calkas, who has also defected to Troy. Calkas brought with him his young daughter, Cressida, who married a Trojan but was widowed soon after. Cressida now serves in the Temple, where her father continues his priesthood. But Calkas has come to realize that Troy can never win the war.

Act One

The Citadel of Troy, before the Temple of Pallas Athene

Desperate and starving, the people of Troy pray before the Temple, beseeching Pallas Athene to save their besieged city. Calkas, the High Priest, comes out of the
Temple and astonishes them by announcing that the Oracle of Delphi has advised Troy to surrender. They refuse to believe that the oracle has been consulted, and Antenor, Captain of Spears, accuses Calkas of being bribed by the Greeks to invent a false oracle. With his reputation already tarnished by his defection to Troy, Calkas is in danger when his priestly awe fails; fortunately, Prince Troilus appears and quells the mob. Troilus assures Antenor that Calkas is faithful; Antenor replies that Troilus has been waiting around the Temple because of Calkas’s daughter, the mysterious Cressida. Antenor leaves for battle, and Troilus admits his feelings, invoking Aphrodite rather than the unhelpful Pallas Athene.

Cressida appears, veiled and pale, bearing a garland of white flowers which she lays on the altar. When Troilus offers his love, she tells him of the bitterness both life and love have brought her; she returns to the Temple. But the conversation has been overheard by her uncle, Pandarus, who offers his assistance in the wooing of Cressida. Troilus accepts gladly.

Calkas and Cressida come out of the Temple. He is disguised and evidently fleeing from Troy; she begs him not to desert city and family. Alone, Cressida recalls strange memories from her childhood: one she reads as the omen of her father’s desertion; the other, the figure of a warrior blurred by smouldering fires, as a warning that the gods will not allow her to love Troilus. Pandarus confirms that Calkas has fled to the Greeks, and tells his niece that only the patronage of Troilus can save the traitor’s family. But his advocacy is interrupted by the return of Antenor’s soldiers from battle: the foray was defeated, Antenor captured. Troilus declares that Antenor must be redeemed, whatever the price. He organizes a rescue party, and sends for Calkas to bless it; the High Priest’s defection is discovered.

Pandarus suggests that Cressida needs consolation. She accepts his invitation to dine the following evening. He persuades her that a token of her esteem would help Troilus in the forthcoming battle, and she sends a crimson scarf, the only piece of colour on her Temple vestment. Though appalled to learn that her father is a traitor, Troilus receives the token joyfully, and gives thanks to Aphrodite.

Act Two

Troy, inside the house of Pandarus

On the evening of the next day, Pandarus entertains Cressida and a group of friends at his luxurious house. They have dined; Cressida and Horaste (a friend of Pandarus) play an early form of chess. Pandarus wanders round the company, pretending to be alarmed by the approach of bad weather – which actually suits his plan to bring Troilus and Cressida together. When the storm breaks, he insists that Cressida and her companions stay the night; a slave draws back curtains to reveal a bed for Cressida.

Alone, Cressida cannot sleep. For all her resolve never to love again, her thoughts have been of Troilus all evening and she surrenders to them. Pandarus returns with the news that Troilus (whom he secretly summoned to the house) has arrived. When Cressida asks why he has come, Pandarus replies that desire is the reason. Troilus enters, overhears, and is angered by Pandarus’s dishonest interfering. Soon Troilus and Cressida are alone. He reassures her and they celebrate their new life and love by thanking the gods, particularly Aphrodite, for this ecstasy. The passing of the night is represented by an orchestral interlude.

Early next morning, the lovers watch dawn breaking. A distant drum approaches, and Greek soldiers stop outside the house. Pandarus begs Troilus to stay while he deals with the situation – news of Calkas, probably. Troilus waits outside; Cressida sits on the bed, hidden by curtains. Diomede, the Greek prince, enters and introduces himself. He tells Pandarus that Calkas has been of great assistance to the Greeks, who wish to thank him; but Calkas will only be satisfied if his daughter, Cressida, is returned to him. An exchange of prisoners has therefore been arranged. (It will be good news for Troilus, Diomede adds.) Having failed to win back Antenor in battle, Troilus has asked his father, King Priam, to redeem him. So it has been agreed that Cressida and Antenor be exchanged. Pandarus is aghast, and pretends that Cressida is not in his house. Diomede draws back the curtains, and is enraptured by the sight of Cressida.

While the Greeks wait outside, Troilus vows to revoke the bargain, but on seeing the royal seals agrees she must obey. Each night he will bribe the sentries so they can meet secretly. Cressida is fearful. Troilus gives back to her the crimson scarf, asking her to cherish it as the token of their sworn constancy. Accompanied by her slave, Evadne, the Greeks take Cressida to their camp.

Act Three

The Greek camp

Ten weeks have passed. Cressida has heard nothing from Troilus. Evadne urges her to forget him, but Cressida sends Evadne back to the camp boundary to look, for the last time, for a message from Troy. Finding his daughter alone, Calkas chides Cressida for her strange behaviour, and presses her to accept Prince Diomede. Cressida berates the gods for deserting her, and agrees to wed Diomede; he asks for a token, and will accept only the crimson scarf. Evadne returns, with no message from Troilus; so Cressida gives Diomede the scarf and goes to her tent to prepare for the wedding. Alone, Evadne burns the unopened message she has just received from Troilus. She has burnt all his messages, convinced by Calkas that Cressida will thank her eventually.

Troilus and Pandarus enter the Greek camp in an hour of truce. They have come to take Cressida back to Troy, where her ransom has been arranged. Cressida comes out of her tent, decked in wedding garments; Troilus has come too late, and she begs him to return to Troy without her. Ceremonial fanfares announce the wedding. Diomede enters in procession, wearing the crimson scarf on his helmet. Troilus recognizes the scarf, and claims that Cressida is his by the same token. Diomede orders Cressida to denounce the Trojan, but she cannot do so.

The six principal characters express their individual feelings, both princes appalled that Cressida has betrayed them. Angered by humiliation, Diomede tramples on the token, and Troilus challenges him. While they fight, Calkas stabs Troilus in the back. Diomede orders the body of Troilus to be returned to Troy, with Pandarus and Evadne, and Calkas in chains. Cressida will remain as an unpriviledged prisoner in the Greek camp: she will be useful. Alone for a moment with the body of Troilus, Cressida finds his sword. When the soldiers return, she stabs herself proudly.

© Gillian Widdicombe

Recording of the first performance, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 3 December 1954.

Original recording from The Harewood Collection

  • Frederick Dalberg
    Calkas, High Priest of Pallas
  • Geraint Evans
    Antenor, Captain of Trojan Spears
  • Monica Sinclair
    The Voice of the Oracle
  • Richard Lewis
    Troilus, Prince of Troy
  • Magda Laszlo
    Cressida, daughter of Calkas, a widow
  • Peter Pears
    Pandarus, brother of Calkas
  • Monica Sinclair
    Evadne, servant of Cressida
  • Forbes Robinson
    Horaste, a friend of Pandarus
  • Otakar Kraus
    Diomede, Prince of Argos
  • Gordon Farrall
    A Priest
  • Gordon Farrall
    First Soldier
  • Stanley Cooper
    Second Soldier
  • Norah Cannell, Jeanne Bowden, Jacqueline Browning, Lilian Simmons
    Ladies in attendance on Cressida
  • Covent Garden Opera Chorus
  • Covent Garden Orchestra
  • Sir Malcolm Sargent

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