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Sir William WALTON (1902-1983)
Troilus and Cressida - an opera in three acts (1954)
Cressida - Judith Howarth (soprano)
Evadne - Yvonne Howard (mezzo)
Troilus - Arthur Davies (tenor)
Pandarus - Nigel Robson (tenor)
Third Watchman - Brian Cookson (tenor)
Priest - Peter Bodenham (tenor)
Soldier - Keith Mills (tenor)
Diomede - Alan Opie (baritone)
Antenor - James Thornton (baritone)
Calkas - Clive Bayley (bass)
First Watchman - Bruce Budd (bass)
Second Watchman - Stephen Dowson (bass)
Horaste - David Owen-Lewis (bass)
Chorus of Opera North
English Northern Philharmonia/Richard Hickox
rec. Leeds Town Hall, 19-25 January 1995. DDD
Texts included.
CHANDOS CHAN241-50 [70:08 + 63:04]

If you want to know more about Walton’s only full length opera and its troubled genesis and performing History, then please read Dr Len Mullenger's extensive article. Suffice it for me to say that it has never really taken off in the way that, perhaps, it should have.

Walton’s achievement will always suffer from comparison with the greatest of all British opera composers, Benjamin Britten, who was Walton’s contemporary. The two weren’t exactly close friends, but Britten’s operatic achievement undoubtedly leaves Walton’s in the shade. Nevertheless, that shouldn’t rule Troilus and Cressida entirely out of court, and there are worthy things on offer here.

Richard Hickox was clearly fully convinced of it. This release comes as part of the Chandos “Hickox Legacy” series, which brings the advantage of slimline packaging and mid-price. It also deserves to win the piece some more friends in its own right. Evident from the outset is Hickox’s brilliant dramatic pacing, which is on show in the tricky opening scene. This is maintained throughout, arguing the most convincing case possible for Walton’s sometimes problematic dramatic sense. Brilliantly, Hickox makes the orchestra speak as much as the characters do. Witness, for example, the seductive strings during the first scene of Act 2, or the way they surge in the love duet. He leaves open the central question of how much is love and how much simple sexual passion. This is mirrored in the Act 2 storm, which then comes round beautifully in the morning as tolling horns accompany Cressida's memories of their night of love. The lovers’ duet at their parting is genuinely moving.

As in Shakespeare, an air of decadence and unpleasantness hangs over the story. Nothing is ever quite what it seems and the lead singers capture that well. Best of all is Judith Howarth, who captures Cressida's lyricism tinged with edginess and danger. She has just the right mix of dreaminess and hysteria in her Act 1 vision, but she is very beautiful in the love music and is unbearably poignant in her loss at start of Act 3. The CD cover tells us that this is the piece’s first recording with a dramatic soprano, and that is all to the good. Next to her, Arthur Davies' Troilus is all swagger and bluster in his opening scene with Cressida. He becomes more tender as love encroaches and his supposed reunion with Cressida in Act 3 is lyrical and moving. Nigel Robson's beautifully lyrical voice is as dangerously attractive as the deceptive, duplicitous character he plays, while Clive Bayley’s Calkas is both authoritative and nasty. Alan Opie makes a bluff, no-nonsense Diomede, in keeping with his character. The lesser principals are all well taken, too.

The Chandos recording is excellent; clear, clean and sharp, with a proper stereo staging that helps bring the drama to life for your ears. The only other easily accessible recording features Janet Baker and the cast who performed the opera in its revised version of 1976. I haven’t heard it, but the quality of Hickox’s performance is so high that I’m inclined to believe Len when he says that Baker’s set is “totally superseded” by Hickox’s. It is welcome in its new format, which also includes the full libretto, as well as an introductory note from Lady Walton.

Simon Thompson

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