Troilus and Cressida, Covent Garden
New Statesman, Nov. 1976
In which opera do we find: an invocation to Venus, a night of storms which is also a night of love, significant off-stage drummings and trumpetings, a watchman's call, a lover kept waiting months for a message, the lastminute entrance of a group of soldiers, and an act of ceremonial hara kiri? The short answer is: in Troilus and Cressida. Christopher Hassall seems deliberately to have diverted his clear, calm Chaucerian source into a turbulent slice of melodrama; the selection is presented as opera omnia. Since the resulting full-blooded Romanticism is attained mainly by copious transfusion, the text lacks vitality of its own. Fortunately Sir William Walton's music is strong enough to sustain it; and the attempt to revive this opera (first heard in 1954) proved largely successful.
Even so, the libretto remained rather a liability. Like a Trojan horse within the citadel of the score, it inadvertently emitted hollow and wooden resonances for much of the night. I am somewhat fortified in that view by the composer's own recorded complaint that his collaborator's style had been “ruined by Ivor Novello”. But that sounds unfair to himself as well as Hassall. If (as Susanne Langer claims) opera swallows words, then a stale style must taint the breath of the music. The real stumbling-block is surely the dramatically weak structure. Perhaps the intention was a pyramidal plot broadly based on the Trojan epic. The perspective gradually narrows, as first nations and then groups of people are seen helplessly enmeshed in the webs of war. Next we are shown two clashing symbols, one on each side: Diomede the Greek and Troilus the Trojan. Then comes the individual character of Pandarus, ironically detached from the conflict. At the apex stands the complex creation of Cressida; the flower of Troy, or rather its Molly Bloom.
As the music ascends this scale of sharpened perceptions it attains ever higher flights of inspiration, culminating in lyric mastery of an exalted order. But the action lacks a base, despite a few perfunctory warlike gestures from the orchestra. If Troy fell at any stage, the cast missed it; and conversely. Indeed, the Trojan War seemed to have been suspended for the duration. This lacuna is not notably well filled by the production. True, the scenic backgrounds are not quite so austere as in that celebrated decor described by Shaw in the Covent Garden of the 1890s, when Heaven and Hell were represented by two holes in a ragged cloth. All the same, the main impulse seemed to be an economy drive. Somewhere en route from the scenery and staging, via the plot and action, to the musical characterisation, the scales began to turn. The name of Pandarus gave a new word to the language, and his themes lend some novel idioms to the language of music (though their accents are not unknown in some parts of Britten). The typical expressions are light and gay, cheerfully amoral, slightly malicious, but always attractively clever and amusing. The role can be played with such insistent comicality as to make the sad love-story mere tragic relief in comparison. Personally I was relieved by Gerald English's realistic restraint; there would already have been quite enough people camping around Troy. Benjamin Luxon as Diomede was in suitably princely command of voice and scene. So was the Troilus of Robert Cassily, who also had an impressively wide range of tone-colour, especially in the higher register, with flute or bugle timbre ready for love or war.
The star of the evening, worth going a long way to observe, was Dame Janet Baker. Her task was the most exacting of all. Cressida was Greek by birth, Trojan by first marriage, daughter of the double turncoat Calkas, niece of the perpetual go-between Pandarus, fought over by both sides like a battlefield; altogether the very embodiment of the divided self, a personality already split, then torn, and finally transfixed. Such parts might well be played as typically tense and peculiar case-histories of Greek tragedy, quite unlike our own family life. Instead; this portrayal had warmth as well as dignity, humanity as well as authority; and it was splendidly sung. Among the rest of a good cast, Elizabeth Bainbridge earned special respect; even as Evadne, companion to the star, she was by no means occulted.
The composer was in the royal box. But the hero of the occasion was his score, which had triumphed over epic odds. Perhaps that victory was itself rather Pyrrhic. The declared aim of composing a “singers’ opera” may have succeeded too well, by creating an opera of song. First, the blank staging sometimes suggested a concert-platform, especially during the monologues. Secondly, the quieter lyrical moments were doubly memorable because only then could the words, even from practised recitalists like Dame Janet and Benjamin Luxon, be clearly heard (the conducting of Lawrence Foster, though generally sure and sensitive, lacked ultimate precision, whether of dynamic level or rhythmic attack). Thirdly, the subtle scoring often contained meaningful nuances more like great Lieder than grand opera. Finally the constant Schubertian echoes and repetitions, lingering over vocal detail, the quasi verbal inflections of instrumental lines; all enhanced and confirmed the lasting impression of costumed song- and duet-recital with scenic and orchestral accompaniment.
Thus, not only action and plot but style and genre seem to inhabit a no-man's-land. But at least they thereby avoid entrenched positions; and it is good to know there is still a field in which strong individuality can rightly triumph.