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Drawn from unbroadcast 33rpm acetate disc recordings, this release offers quite reasonable sound quality for a live performance, though some surface noise and a less than totally "hi-fi" frequency range puts it at lower than state-of-the-art for the mid-fifties. That said it's significantly better than the AM radio broadcast that has surfaced elsewhere from the same series of performances.
Our dating of 21 December 1954 is based on detective work centred around the use of stand-in Barbara Howitt for Monica Sinclair in the role of Evadne. Click on the tabs here for extensive additional notes and historic information.
Recorded 21 December 1954, Covent Garden, London
XR remastering by Andrew Rose
Cover artwork based on a photograph of the death of Troilus (Act 3) from the Covent Garden production
Troilus and Cressida
Opera in three acts
Libretto by Christopher Hassall
Music by William Walton
Scenery by Hugh Casson
Costumes by Malcolm Pride
Producer: George Devine
First performance: 3 December 1954
Covent Garden Opera Orchestra & Chorus
Conductor: Sir Malcolm Sargent
Calkas, High Priest of Pallas - Frederick Dalberg
Anterior, Captain of Trojan Spears - Geraint Evans
The Voice of the Oracle - Barbara Howitt
Troilus, Prime of Troy - Richard Lewis
Cressida, daughter of Calkas, a widow - Magda Laszlo
Pandoras, brother of Calkas - Peter Pears
Evadne, servant of Cressida - Barbara Howitt
Horaste, a friend of Pandarus - Forbes Robinson
Diomede, Prince of Argos - Otakar Kraus
A Priest - Gordon Farrell
First Soldier - Clifford Starr
Second Soldier - Stanley Cooper
Ladies in attendance on Cressida - Norah Cannell, Jeanne Bowden, Jacqueline Brown, Lilian Simmons
Troilus and Cressida
Walton's Troilus and Cressida, which reflects the composer’s great love of romantic Italian opera, was the closest to his heart of all his works. It had the longest period of gestation - over seven years - but it was to be beset with problems. The première of Britten’s Peter Grimes at Sadler’s Wells in June 1945 had revitalised hopes for British opera. Walton felt keenly the rivalry of fellow composers and John Ireland wrote to a friend: ‘Walton was there, with Lady Wimborne. He must have felt rather a draught, I fancy!’ The spur had come from the BBC, its Director of Music writing informally to Walton on 8 February 1947: 'The BBC has decided to commission an opera and would like you to compose it. I do not at all know how you are placed as regards time, but I very much hope that you will be interested in the idea.' The fee was fixed at £500 - with £175 for the libretto.
Walton’s librettist was the actor, poet, playwright and lyricist Christopher Hassall whose name had possibly been put forward by the BBC. Alice Wimborne, whom Walton ‘loved very dearly’, had been the muse behind his violin concerto. She was ‘very intelligent, very kind and very musical . . . and very good at making me work’. She knew and admired Hassall, best known for his lyrics for the songs of six of Ivor Novello's musical plays, from Glamorous Night (1935) to King's Rhapsody (1949). (Hassall was later to work with Sir Arthur Bliss and Sir Malcolm Arnold. His association with Novello has caused some commentators to be perhaps unfairly critical of his libretto for Walton.)
Alice was closely involved in the early stages of the opera commission, helping in the search for a suitable subject. Her critical perception and understanding of Walton had made her an admirable companion, and on 15 June 1947 she had written to Hassall who, after a number of proposals, had come up with Troilus and Cressida: 'The difficulty is to find the perfect subject. Many that would suit his music have other drawbacks, as a case in point, Byron. For apart from suitability for him the story or plot must be so easy and clear and flowing and scenic. Troilus and C. has got that.'
Throughout 1947 and into 1948 the synopsis was slowly thrashed out. But there were delays when Alice contracted cancer for which treatment was sought in a Swiss clinic. Despite her increasingly serious illness Alice's sympathetic hand was there in support of what she referred to Hassall as 'our child' right up to her death in April 1948. Walton was utterly devastated. An attack of jaundice put him in hospital, after which he recuperated on the island of Capri. Later that year on a trip to Argentina to attend an international conference of the Performing Rights Society, he met his future wife Susana Gil Passo and their whirlwind marriage took place in Buenos Aires in December. They arrived in England in February 1949 and by November they were settled in Ischia, living initially in a building that was too uncomfortable to be any more than a temporary residence before moving to another, a derelict building that they rebuilt and made habitable as their home for eight years. (The land for their final home, La Mortella, was purchased in 1956.) It was against the background of these living conditions that Walton took up again the threads of Troilus and Cressida. Travel, personal tragedy, marriage and the move to Italy had caused a serious disruption to the schedule. As a librettist Hassall was not at first conversant with the style, rhythm and wording of grand opera, but Walton suggested he looked at the libretti of operas like Verdi’s Rigoletto and Un ballo in maschera and study verses of varying lengths and the use of appropriate words. He offered Otello and Aida as models for the timings of the acts, and even suggested that Cressida’s ‘At the haunted end of the day’ in Act II should correspond in length to the aria ‘Celeste Aida’.
Living several months of each year in Ischia did not make working with his librettist at all easy. Much of it was done by correspondence because of the lack of a telephone in his Italian home, and contact by post was slow and laborious. Hassall described their working method:
We naturally worked in close collaboration, either by a stream of letters between London and Italy, or together at Sir William's home in Ischia. . . [He] copied out the initial synopsis so as to examine it the more closely and check on every detail. I then redrafted it and broke it up into numbered sections, and began the actual text on the same pattern, numbers being necessary for easy reference since the work continued by correspondence once the composition of the music began. I kept a pile of envelopes ready stamped and addressed for prompt reply, and our rather extraordinary correspondence over a long period would fill, I should imagine, several volumes. The exact motive or mood at any point was discussed, also the stanza - shape and style of the utterance, for the libretto ranged from measured rhyme to free verse (for instance, the passage in hexameter rhythm in Act 1 was not my idea, but was a 'special request'.) Such requests make a task of this kind all the more stimulating.
There were advantages in this partnership. They got on remarkably well. Changes could be carefully considered over a period of time. Each was sensitive to the other’s ideas, Walton being particularly good at coming up with suggestions for dramatic improvements and Hassall keen to respond. In April 1948 the BBC issued a statement to the effect that it had commissioned Walton to write an opera, and that the libretto had been ‘written by Christopher Hassall in active collaboration with Dr Walton on the theme of Troilus and Cressida, but not using Shakespeare's words or following his play. It is 3 acts.' But this was far from the truth. Ten months later little progress had been made with the libretto, and in February 1949 Stanford Robinson, Opera Director at the BBC, wrote to Walton: 'Warmest congratulations to you on your marriage. . . Will this new happiness have the effect of making you finish your opera quick or slower? . . . So far as I can judge you have not actually got down any Act in anything like a final form.'
On 28 March 1949 Walton wrote to Stanford Robinson: 'The opera position is perhaps a little brighter. At last Christopher & I . . . have really got the libretto into shape so it only now needs the music. The idea at the moment is to get it ready for the 1951 [Festival of Britain] Exhibition.' But by 4 February 1950 it seems that problems with the libretto were still not entirely solved: ‘[It] bristles with difficulties especially libretto ones,’ he wrote to Steuart Wilson, head of the BBC Music Department.
Wilson replied: ‘I would like to know whether you think that we could do - or that you would like to do - it as a public performance in the RAH or South Bank as a first 'concert' performance with or without narrator.’ But Walton, who now seemed to be harbouring some doubts about the work, responded on 1 March: ‘On the whole I'm not keen about a concert performance of Troilus during 1951. For one thing I don't think it would stand the cold hard light of a concert performance, & it may, with luck, just get away with it on the stage. Though for me, it has progressed fairly well, I've been fairly stuck for the last fortnight & I shall be pleased if I get it finished in sketch by this time next year. I aim for a Cov[ent] Gar[rden] performance about June '52.’
The BBC became increasingly impatient at the non-appearance of Troilus. Nevertheless, it recommended 'that the commission remains in force and that the commission fee is paid in respect of the first performance despite the fact that it would be a stage performance'. The Director-General’s feeling that 'We don't want to negotiate with him' was perhaps forgotten when Walton received a knighthood in the Festival of Britain year honours.
The idea for its subject had come to Christopher Hassall after reading a chapter in C. S. Lewis's The Allegory of Love. Analysing the character of Cressida (or Criseide), Lewis had written that from the 'fear of loneliness, of old age, of death, of love, and of hostility . . . springs the only positive passion which can be permanent in such a nature, the pitiable longing, more childlike than womanly, for protection, for some strong and stable thing that will hide her away and take the burden from her shoulder.' Hassall turned to Chaucer's epic poem Troilus and Criseide set amidst the Trojan war, 'with the order of Chaucer's events rearranged, new details introduced, and the whole compressed within much narrower limits of time, until the latter half of Act III where the opera bears no relation to the medieval poem. There is nothing of Shakespeare in the libretto, beyond a similarity of situation here and there inevitable in two works derived from the same source.'
At different stages the libretto was looked at by Ernest Newman, Walter Legge, Ernest Irving and, while staying on Ischia, Wystan Auden to whom Walton played through Troilus. All made valuable comments and criticisms, and it was Auden who solved the problem of ending Act III by suggesting a quintet. This became the sextet which Newman hailed as a successor to the Rosenkavalier trio, the Meistersinger quintet and the Rigoletto quartet. ‘I now understand why no-one has attempted an opera with “love” interest since Puccini. Scyllas and Charybdises surround one at every bar. Give me Buddery every time – or even plain rape,’ he naughtily wrote to Walter Legge in March 1952. (Britten’s Billy Budd had been premièred at Covent Garden the previous December.)
There were interruptions with commissions for the Coronation Te Deum and Orb and Sceptre Coronation March, and in August 1953 Walton sailed to the United States for conducting engagements. But for the remainder of that year and all the following one he was occupied with Troilus which was finished by September 1954. Although dedicated 'To my wife', it must nevertheless have stirred anguished memories of Alice. 'I sweated blood over it - in fact it nearly killed me,' he once remarked in an interview.
Act I opens in the citadel of Troy. Calkas, high priest and father of Cressida, is convinced that further resistance to the besieging Greeks is useless and tries to persuade the people that the Oracle of Delphi has advised surrender. Antenor, a young captain and friend of Troilus, accuses Calkas of being in the pay of the Greeks, but Troilus gives assurance of the priest’s good faith. Unconvinced, Antenor sets off on a foray against the enemy. Troilus meets up with Cressida to whom he declares his love - but to no avail. He is overheard by Pandarus, Calkas’s brother, who promises to plead his cause. Pandarus then hears Calkas bidding farewell to Cressida and discovers that his brother is deserting Troy. He tries to console Cressida with the thought of Troilus’s love but he is interrupted by the announcement of Antenor’s capture. Troilus sends a message to his father King Priam saying that if he fails to regain his friend Antenor by force then an exchange of prisoners must be arranged with the Greeks whatever the cost. Pandarus meanwhile invites Cressida to a supper party at his house the following evening and persuades her to give him the scarf she is wearing which he delivers to Troilus, now convinced of Calkas’s treachery, as a token of her affection.
Act II takes place at Pandarus’s house the next evening; Cressida and the other guests are playing chess. A storm develops and, as part of his plan, Pandarus sends for Troilus and persuades Cressida not to risk going home in such weather but to stay instead. Her servants prepare her for the night and then, alone, she admits to herself that she has fallen in love again. Pandarus then comes with the news that Troilus is in the house because, as he falsely explains, he is racked with jealousy. Overhearing this, Troilus bursts in disclaiming such nonsense. Pandarus slips away and on his return is delighted to see that his plan is working and the two are reconciled.
After a night of passion Troilus and Cressida are disturbed by the sound of an approaching drum. It is Diomede, commander of the Greeks, who has come for an exchange of prisoners. The lovers conceal themselves behind some curtains and Pandarus takes it on himself to conduct the parley. Calkas, it seems, has done the Greeks some good service and will accept no reward other than that his only child be restored to his care, which can be done to meet King Priam’s plea for the return of Antenor whom Troilus failed to snatch back from the Greeks. Diomede produces the seals of Troy and of Greece as proof of the agreement. Searching the room, he sees Cressida and is struck by her beauty. He tells her to prepare for a journey and meet him in the yard. Troilus enters in despair and promises to smuggle messages through the enemy lines, and as a show of his fidelity gives back to Cressida the scarf she gave him the day before.
Act III opens in the Greek encampment ten weeks later, during which time Cressida has received no word from Troilus: her servant Evadne has been destroying all his messages under orders from Calkas who now reproaches Cressida for her coldness towards Diomede. Having heard nothing from Troilus she ultimately yields to Diomede’s advances and allows him to take her scarf as a token of her favour. That very night she is to be proclaimed Queen of Argos. However, during an hour of truce Troilus and Pandarus appear and urge Evadne to fetch Cressida whose ransom is being arranged. Seeing Diomede carrying Cressida's scarf, Troilus claims her as his own. Enraged, he attacks Diomede but is stabbed in the back by Calkas. Diomede orders Calkas to return to Troy but declares that Cressida must stay behind as a prisoner. Seizing Troilus's sword, she takes her own life.
The first performance of Troilus and Cressida, which was broadcast, took place at the Royal Opera House on 3 December 1954. Even once the composition had been completed, the opera seemed plagued with problems. There were initial doubts as to who would be designer and director – ultimately Hugh Casson and George Divine, after such names as Henry Moore, Isobel Lambert and Laurence Olivier had been considered. Then there were casting difficulties, and the greatest disappointment was with the role of Cressida which Walton had written with Walter Legge’s wife Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in mind. After problems in fixing dates she eventually declined with varying excuses that her English was not good enough and ‘the text was Ivor Novello-ish and in English’. How magnificently she would have taken on that role can be surmised from the extracts she recorded in 1955 with Walton conducting [Pristine ****]. Her replacement, the Hungarian soprano Magda Laszlò, could speak little English and had to be coached. Contrary to what one might have expected, the rather camp role of Pandarus, with its occasional Brittenesque phrasing and suggestions of falsetto, was not written with Peter Pears in mind though he proved admirable in the part. Parry Jones was the first suggestion (just as Nicolai Gedda had been for Troilus). Perhaps for Pears’s sake the lines: ‘Come, Troilus, confide in me. I have much experience in these things . . What do you know of love?’ were removed soon after the first performance.
The first orchestral rehearsal nearly had to be abandoned because the parts were littered with so many inaccuracies that had not been pro