'Troilus,' Rescued From Obscurity in St. Louis

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 23, 2008

ST. LOUIS -- The title "Troilus and Cressida" rings a bell with Shakespeare fans but has little resonance among opera-goers. And yet it headlined an unexpectedly diverting evening at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis on Saturday night.

The opera (not actually based on Shakespeare's drama) by the British composer William Walton had a fairly well received world premiere in 1954, and has been heard only a handful of times since. One suggested reason for this neglect is that it seems old-fashioned, but it is also easy to assume, backed up by contemporary sources like composer-critic Virgil Thomson, that it is simply not very good.

Charles MacKay, the general director here, offered a third hypothesis: The scale of this opera has been off-putting to potential producers. But this problem can be solved, as the St. Louis performances demonstrated with a new performing edition for a smaller orchestra: "Troilus," though flawed, has proved to be a highlight of the month-long opera festival here that wraps up next weekend.

"Old-fashioned" tends to mean "tonal" and "singable"; this score is dense but lyrical, with an identifying musical motif for each character (the slippery tumbling motif of Cressida's uncle Pandarus was straight out of Britten's "Serenade") and occasional shameless outpourings of tune. "Old-fashioned," in this case, also means "dramatically well paced." Each of the three acts had a clear arc, so the production's decision to lump together the first two yielded something misguidedly long-winded. But it was refreshing to encounter actual pacing, given that opera composition today so often seems to involve simply applying music to chunks of text, without much shaping at all.

"Troilus" is a fine emblem of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, which presents America's second most important opera festival (after the Santa Fe Opera). For one thing, the work is in English, like everything the company puts on. It was also a pet project of Colin Graham, St. Louis's longtime artistic director (as well as a stage director and librettist), who died in 2007, before he was able to realize this ambition.

The work is an unusual one, and it was presented in a production by Stephen Lawless that at least aspired to be fresh. It also showcased some important talent, including the widely praised conductor Antony Walker (known in the Washington area as the artistic director of the Washington Concert Opera) and Ellie Dehn, last seen in the stratospheric reaches of Philip Glass's writing for soprano voice in "Satyagraha" at the Metropolitan Opera. As Cressida, Dehn proved to have a radiant, colorful voice. Thus the opera epitomized many of the things this company aspires to -- and, for better or worse, embodies the goals of most American opera festivals that have followed in Santa Fe's wake.

(The symbiosis between St. Louis and Santa Fe has always been particularly strong. At the end of this season, MacKay will leave the former to take over the Santa Fe Opera, replacing Richard Gaddes -- whom he followed in St. Louis as well. MacKay's successor will be Timothy O'Leary, 33, whose experience includes stints at the New York City Opera.)

The increasing uniformity of these goals has led to a distinctive thumbprint, not just of opera in St. Louis but of American opera in general: Think eager artists turning in adequate performances in productions that are hyperactively bright and witty when a piece is humorous, dark and intense when it is not. An example: the director Chas Rader-Shieber, who came straight from Washington National Opera's "Tamerlano" (serious, dark) to St. Louis, where he staged the fluffy comedy "Una Cosa Rara," by Vicente Martin y Soler, in an overly arch, candy-colored production.

He did not have a lot to work with. "Una Cosa Rara" means "a rare thing" (the reference is to a woman's constancy), and rareness is merciful in the case of this nearly forgotten work. A huge hit at its 1786 premiere, eclipsing Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" (by the same librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte) and preserved for posterity through having been quoted in "Don Giovanni," it moved rapidly in my mental catalogue on Friday night from A Neat Curiosity to Something I Never Need to See Again. It offers a collection of sugary tunes with little musical substance and a plot that has entirely run its course by intermission: Two couples fall in love, surmount obstacles and wed, leaving the second act as mere filler.

The whole thing had the brief appeal of cotton candy, something matched by the pink-and-green, blue-and-yellow palette of David Zinn (the opening scene presented a verdant greensward dotted with pink lawn flamingos, into which a pink-clad Queen Isabella made her entrance mounted on a white carousel horse). Lesson learned: Few people want to eat cotton candy for an entire evening.

Corrado Rovaris conducted reasonably well. Of the singers, Maureen McKay and Keith Phares, as the shepherd and shepherdess at the heart of the story, were notable.

"The Tales of Hoffmann" fared better at the hands of Renaud Doucet. Jacques Offenbach left the opera unfinished at his death, and Doucet took this fact as a starting point, opening his production with a spoken tribute to Offenbach before an elaborate gilt memorial featuring the composer and his Muses. In one of those brief, satisfying moments of theatrical inspiration, the statues came unexpectedly to life, and Offenbach, looking like a living bronze throughout, became the guiding spirit of the opera, appearing in every scene and taking over minor roles with aplomb, making a veritable showpiece out of the aria of a deaf servant. (Matthew DiBattista was such an agile physical comedian that it was almost a surprise when it turned out he also could sing.) And one of the bronze Muses turned out to be Hoffmann's Muse, disguising herself as his companion Niklausse (Jennifer Johnson, a silvery mezzo).

André Barbe's sets involved geometrical line drawings and a predominantly black-and-white palette; yet the production had an underlying sensuality that was appropriate to an opera about the three faces of the woman the poet Hoffmann loves. Niklausse, usually played as a voice of reason as s/he follows Hoffmann's escapades, was here wildly jealous, eager to win Hoffmann by any means possible. And the first of Hoffmann's three lovers, the automaton Olympia, usually an exquisite china doll, was here a vulgar, out-of-control sex machine that appeared as a tawdry robot to all but Hoffmann's blinkered eyes. This more energetic interpretation fit the voice of Ailyn Pérez, which was fuller than the norm for Olympia; the singer, who threw herself completely into each of her three characters, has a sweet, round voice ideal for Antonia, the tragic diva who sings herself to death.

Stephen Lord, St. Louis's music director, conducted at a generally brisk, supportive pace, but went along with a reading of the famous Barcarolle that dripped with heavy-lidded languor, sung by women in bloomers, in the manner of the cancan dancers of Offenbach's day (Hoffmann's third paramour is a Venetian courtesan). Garrett Sorenson, alas, was a disappointing Hoffmann, who had wonderful high notes but was lackluster in the rest of his voice. Doucet's weakness was in not sufficiently characterizing the poet and his cohorts; the Offenbach gimmick was much more compelling than the main story.

"Troilus" made a fine contrast: dark instead of funny, with fresh music probing at the ear and a strong vocal cast (Elizabeth Batton, an excellent mezzo-soprano with contralto overtones, should also be mentioned). It didn't hurt that the work was originally written in English and therefore not offered here in translation. The company's signature mission of presenting opera in English, anachronistic in the age of supertitles, can be a straitjacket: In "Cosa Rara," the jingly translation melded awkwardly with the music's audibly Italian cadences. This is not to question the festival's basic premise -- that opera is drama and should be heard in the native language of its audience. These days, this idea is a "cosa rara" itself. But opera should not become a slave to the tyranny of any language -- even if this means allowing a phrase or two of interpolated freedom, sorry, French.

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