The most surprising thing about Benjamin Britten’s coronation opera Gloriana, for me, is that it merely fell rather flat at its first performance. The composer, we read, had insisted on its virtually official status as part of the coronation proceedings, and it seems to have been his major bid to be accepted as an establishment figure, and not merely as the most significant of the younger generation of composers.
But to have chosen, at the suggestion of the Earl of Harewood, the nearest relation to the royal family with any serious pretensions to being artistically cultivated, Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex, with its characteristically world-weary deflating view of human affairs and affaires, was surely a piece of ill-judged mischief at least. Britten and Pears spent an evening at the Harewoods’ house in Orme Square playing through parts of the opera to the Queen and Prince Philip, but one can’t imagine that a great deal of it would have sunk in, or that if it had that the royals would have given voice to any particular reservations.
I found, in this new production at the Royal Opera, a clever and characteristic effort from Richard Jones, that the scene in which the Earl of Essex breaks in on Elizabeth when she is déshabillée and almost bald is still shocking, not so much as a breach of protocol but for more general human reasons. It is also one of the most effective scenes in a work that doesn’t have many, and it breaks down the extra barrier that Jones has erected by having the whole opera done as a provincial show put on for the benefit of the new monarch.
Before Britten and his librettist William Plomer have got under way, members of the royal family, including the Queen, all looking like figures who have walked out of a Horlicks advertisement, stroll along surveying the preparations; a prompter, a children’s choir conductor, and so on appear and the opera begins, in a large tent, and with the actors helping the stage hands to wheel the Tudor scenery on and off. A row of small, grey-clothed schoolboys file in at the start of the scenes, holding up a letter each to show us that we’re in THE TOWER or wherever. It almost seems as if Jones is apologising for the work by saying ‘Look, it’s only something mounted in a village somewhere, nothing posh or sophisticated.’ When a large part of the evening already consists of masques and ceremonies, to distance all of it seems a mistake, which only the strongest scenes manage to overcome.
With minimal dramatic interest, especially in the first two acts, which are played straight through and last for an hour and 40 minutes, concentration is all on the music. A lot of it is just dutiful, the least motivated I have heard of Britten’s, and not much good as mock-Tudor. Plomer’s archaising libretto is no help, though one is bound to feel affection for a text that disinters such words as ‘besprent’. The royal visit to Norwich and the masque that is performed there for her benefit felt all too much to me as they would have if I had actually had to take part in such things.
The alternation and sometimes overlapping of public and private is inevitably reminiscent of Verdi in such works as Don Carlo, an opera that hadn’t had its great revival by 1953. There the clash of love and duty, keeping up appearances and suffering appallingly in private, makes an immense impact. Britten, though, doesn’t do much to bring his major characters to life here, and unfortunately, surprisingly too, Susan Bullock as Gloriana is unimpressive. Her voice seems to have declined still further since, or thanks to, last year’s Ring cycles, and she lacked the presence which I have always counted on from her. By contrast, Toby Spence’s lithe, boyish, ambitious Essex is a wonderfully rounded portrayal, and the other important courtiers, played by Mark Stone, Clive Bayley, Jeremy Carpenter, Kate Royal and Patricia Bardon, all make as much as possible of their roles.
About the notorious move from song into speech in the last few minutes there will be no agreement. To me it seems a clear cop-out, and unclear in intent. Welcome as it is to have an opera of Britten’s without his usual preoccupations, overt or otherwise, Gloriana does seem a failure.
I only have space this week to advertise what I shall be discussing next week: Opera North’s third instalment of the Ring, which I saw in Symphony Hall Birmingham. Siegfried is being repeated, on the next four Saturdays, in Manchester, Newcastle and Leeds. Thanks in the largest part to Richard Farnes, who strikes me as clearly the finest living Wagner conductor, but with perfectly satisfactory singing, this is an event that no one who cares about Wagner can possibly miss. It is decades since I have attended so impressive a performance of the great work.