William Walton : Troilus and Cressida

'This unfortunate opera' by Len Mullenger

In the autumn of 1954, Sir Malcolm Sargent could have been seen on a flight to Tokyo with his head buried in the new score of Walton's 'Troilus and Cressida' - prompting one of Beecham's remarks:

"Ah, Flash in Japan".

Although only a rehearsal score, there were already supplementary sheets containing 170 corrections. Almost ten years earlier Ralph Hawkes, of Boosey and Hawkes, persuaded the Arts Council to help him re-open the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, and Constant Lambert had proposed that William Walton should sit on the advisory committee. They decided that British opera should no longer suffer the neglect it had and that composers should be allowed an advance on royalties to assist them in completion of their projects.

In 1947, the BBC commissioned Walton to write an opera. Peter Grimes had been very successful in 1945 and this decided Walton to try to emulate it. The BBC suggested Christopher Hassall as librettist and it was agreed with Alice Wimborne, who was Walton's patron (and mistress), that Troilus and Cressida (mainly after Chaucer) met their requirements.

It took Walton six years to write the opera and he claimed he would never write another - "too many words"! One of the reasons for the protracted gestation was the death of Alice Wimborne in April 1948; the other was the need to write the score for Olivier's Hamlet. Walton only really got down to writing Troilus after he had married, and moved to Ischia.

It became clear that what was being written was a major score - beyond the scope of a BBC commission and it was decided to perform it at Covent Garden, conducted by Sargent. However work was interrupted again by the Coronation and the score was finally delivered in 1954 bearing a dedication to Walton's new wife. It had been originally planned that Olivier would produce the opera with the scenery painted by Henry Moore who had also been invited to do the Covent Garden Ring cycle, but in 1952 Moore withdrew and it was then proposed that Constant Lambert's widow, Isabel, would design the set. Laurence Olivier preferred Roger Furse who had worked with him on stage productions and the films Henry V and Hamlet. Then Olivier resigned, so eventually George Devine was appointed with Sir Hugh Casson as the designer. This was just the start of the problems that have beset this unfortunate opera.

Walton wrote the part of Cressida for Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, who did indeed record extracts from it in 1955 (currently available on EMI mid-price CDM7 64199-2). When asked to open with the opera she demurred pleading another engagement, although Neil Tierney, in his biography of Walton, quotes Walter Legge as saying that she disliked singing in English and neither liked the story nor the character of Cressida. Covent Garden suggested the Hungarian soprano, Magda Laszio; Walton agreed that she had the looks but she could not speak any English. She was expected to learn the part parrot-fashion and to sing without a trace of a foreign accent. If you listen to the Schwarzkopf recording you can hear how impossible that was going to be. In the event, her English was so poor that she had to be coached by Susana Walton, who was herself Argentinian! Opposite her Peter Pears played Pandarus. The producer was George Devine and the designer Hugh Casson. It became known that the opera was to be a sumptuous affair, very romantic in style and destined to become very popular.

Sargent proved a problem. He was a rather vain and self-opinionated conductor. He had not conducted an opera at Covent Garden since 1936 - nor anywhere else except for Gilbert and Sullivan. The singers complained that he often left them without support when they were unaccompanied to which he responded that since there was no orchestral part it was not necessary for him to conduct. He constantly questioned Walton's scoring, which did not endear him to the composer and a further difficulty was that Sargent's eyesight was failing but he was too vain to wear spectacles when conducting. Since the score had still not been printed Sargent was working from the rehearsal score which was rather indistinct in parts. He seemed uncertain of the score and even during performance he counted the bars out loud, which was very off-putting for the performers. On one occasion he brought Geraint Evans in a bar too early with an enormous flourish., Evans decided to ignore this and came in at the proper time. Evans notes in his biography that Walton often had to be called into rehearsals to help and he became increasingly disenchanted. (Unbelievably, Sargent was still the conductor at the Covent Garden revival in 1963 even though Walton pleaded with David Webster to find somebody else. Christopher Hassel, the librettist, died from a heart attack whilst running for a train to attend one of the revived performances.)

Nevertheless, the opening night in 1955 was a brilliant occasion but those in the know regarded it as being a rather inaccurate performance. Compared to Peter Grimes, the opera was considered old fashioned. In 1955 and 1963, Walton drastically pruned the score for each revival.

The failure of Troilus and Cressida was a source of great distress to Walton. He felt that it had not been given a fair 'crack of the whip' by Covent Garden. In 1971 he decided on yet further revisions. Gillian Widdecombe suggested Janet Baker for the role and next time he was in London Walton saw Janet Baker on stage and was captivated. She agreed to perform in the opera which meant that the part of Cressida would have to be transposed down. Act II was the first to be ready and was performed on its own at a Promenade Concert in 1972 conducted by André Previn. At last Walton had found the conductor he wanted and Previn had always admired Walton's music and was his pre-eminent interpreter at the time. However, Janet Baker did not sing at the Prom, Cressida being performed by Jill Gomez.

Christopher Hassall's death meant that Walton had the freedom to change the libretto so he excised a further 30 minutes from the score and made a number of internal rearrangements, so that the opera in its final form lasts just over two hours. When the score was finally ready for the 1976 revival at Covent Garden the jinx on the opera displayed itself yet again. Walton himself was ill from stress and then André Previn developed bursitis (a swelling in the joints) and had to withdraw. He was replaced by Lawrence Foster who had to learn the score at short notice. The Troilus, Alberto Remedios, also backed out to be replaced by Richard Cassilly. Finally, Covent Garden only made £15,000 available, all of which went on costumes so the scenery had to be borrowed from other productions together with what could be salvaged from the original productions. (In that same year Covent Garden spent 10 times that much on La Fanciulla del West!). Nevertheless, in spite of luke warm reviews, the tickets sold well and Walton was finally happy.

EMI did issue a recording with the 1976 cast which has finally made it onto CD (EMI CMS5 65550-2 2CDs Mid-price). Its glory is the singing of Janet Baker but this set has been totally superseded by new recording by Chandos conducted by Richard Hickox with Judith Howard as Cressida, Arthur Davies as Troilus and Nigel Robinson as Pandarus (CHAN 9370-71)

In 1988, the late Christopher Palmer arranged a 30-minute Concert Suite from the opera which has also been issued by Chandos coupled with Walton's Second Symphony conducted by Bryden Thomson (CHAN8772). As this contains all the tunes it is a perfect introduction to the opera.

Further Reading:

Michael Kennedy: Portrait of Walton

Geraint Evans: A Knight at the Opera

Susana Walton: William Walton: Behind the Facade

This article first appeared in ORMS NEWS, The newsletter of the Olton Recorded Music Society
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