War Is Still Hell: Opera Theatre's season-closing Troilus and Cressida is not to be missed

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' final production of the 2008 season, a surprising and beautiful version of William Walton's rarely performed Troilus and Cressida, is a visual and musical feast.

Walton, who occasionally moonlighted as a jazz pianist, was the darling of England's modern music set in the years immediately preceding World War II. He was the island's answer to Stravinsky, Ravel and Sibelius, the natural and open modernists of the early 20th century. When war broke out, Walton volunteered as an ambulance driver. (It turned out that he drove like a composer, so the government asked him to write music for propagandistic films instead.) With peace came the opportunity to go back to serious composing, when the BBC commissioned him to write an opera. Troilus and Cressida is the result.

Like most Brits, Walton spent the war years being pounded by Hitler's Luftwaffe. German bombers laid waste to his home in 1941. Troilus and Cressida, a story that dates back to Homer's Iliad, takes place during the siege of Troy, and for Walton it was a vehicle for expressing the human damage engendered by the Nazi siege of London three millennia later, and a reminder that the societal corruption engendered by war hasn't changed in all that time.

Ellie Dehn and Roger Honeywell star as the doomed lovers in Troilus and Cressida.
Ken Howard
Ellie Dehn and Roger Honeywell star as the doomed lovers in Troilus and Cressida.

Under the direction of Stephen Lawless, this staging pays exquisite attention to detail in order to evoke both classical Troy and the bunkers of London. It's a provocative mix of classical and modern references that Walton would have loved. Set designer Gideon Davey's claustrophobic, subterranean set is a wash of shades of gray, which lighting designer Mark McCullough subtly illuminates with sparks of daylight and shards of moonlight. Costume designer Martin Pakledinaz decks out the endless ranks of soldiers in modern camouflage fatigues and combat boots juxtaposed with ancient breastplates. Similarly, they're outfitted with spears, knives and shields — and, in the end, an assault rifle.

On its face, Troilus and Cressida is the story of two lovers torn apart by circumstances and victimized by the needs of their warring states. Walton's music sweeps them along with the rhythmic vitality of historical inevitability but maintains a luminous darkness at its atmospheric core: There will be no happy ending here.

The 32-voice chorus is used judiciously to underpin a powerful moodiness throughout. The orchestra numbers twice Opera Theatre's normal complement of musicians (Walton's original score called for at least three times as many musicians as a typical opera orchestra). In his OTSL debut, conductor Antony Walker deftly directs the players through Walton's myriad assortment of mood-influencing instrumental solos, duets and trios and into the dense, dramatic harmonies of the fully orchestrated sections. All the while, he manages to leave plenty of breathing room for his singers.

This is a gorgeous opera, but difficult to sing. The vocal lines are strung through long sweeping melodies that stretch tonality. Director Lawless' cast is well suited to the task. As Cressida, soprano Ellie Dehn glows with a low-key intensity, showing off Walton's music rather than her own beautiful voice. Roger Honeywell as Troilus likewise navigates the minefield of Walton's music with aplomb, wrapping his rich, clear tenor around each note. Troilus features a pair of bass-baritone roles: Darren Stokes as Cressida's father, the traitorous priest Calkas; and Mark Doss as his co-conspirator, Diomede. Their voices are complementary shades of dusky velvet, particularly effective when harmonically coloring other singers. But the two standout performances are delivered by Elizabeth Barton, the lustrous, creamy mezzo-soprano who plays Cressida's double-crossing servant Evadne, and Robert Breault, who has a great time as Pandarus, the delightfully sleazy "fixer."

According to Walton scholar David Wordsworth, this performance marks the first Troilus in about ten years. It's a pricey, complex and risky undertaking. By the time you read this, there'll be two performances left.

 
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