by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The opera was Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana, a commission for the coronation ceremonies of the current Queen Elizabeth II and therefore — at least it must have seemed logical at the time — a depiction of her illustrious predecessor, Elizabeth I. The libretto was by William Plomer based on the book Elizabeth and Essex by Lytton Strachey, which may have been the first miscalculation that led to this opera’s disappointing critical and commercial reception when it was new. One might have thought a composer and librettist doing the life of Elizabeth I as part of the celebrations of the coronation of her namesake would have focused on the most glorious parts of Elizabeth I’s reign: the settlement of the religious question (the steering of the Church of England to a safe middle ground between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism) and the successful defense of the country against the threat from Philip II of Spain (especially the defeat of the Spanish Armada) — but no-o-o-o-o: Britten and Plomer focus on the last four pathos-ridden years of Elizabeth’s reign, and specifically her involvement with the Earl of Essex; Essex’ disastrous leadership of the British armies in Ireland and his defeat by the Earl of Tyrone; his return to England, involvement in a plot either to overthrow Elizabeth’s advisors (especially his nemesis, Sir Robert Cecil) or target the queen herself, his ultimate execution for treason and Elizabeth’s last, desperate years, clinging to life while her advisors were badgering her to name a successor so there wouldn’t be the kind of civil war that had plagued England in the 15th century.
The use of Essex as the male lead dates the action of this opera as 1599 to 1603 — the last four years of Elizabeth’s life and reign — and Britten and Plomer highlighted this by having Elizabeth appear at both the beginning and end of the last act without makeup or wig, showing her “behind the scenes” as it were. I’d never either seen or even heard Gloriana before — it wasn’t recorded until 1973 and still isn’t one of Britten’s most popular operas — so I eagerly picked up the chance to watch this production, a 2001 TV taping from the Teatro Liceu in Barcelona, Spain of a touring production from Opera North, a British company based in Leeds that marched this production on tour first through the U.K. and then across much of Europe. (An intermission announcer in Spanish mentioned that this was the work’s Spanish premiere.) This version of Gloriana was directed by Phyllida Lloyd, a director who despite her prestigious reputation in the British theatre world is best known today for having helped adapt ABBA’s songs into the musical Mamma Mia! and having directed this property both on stage and film.
The production design fortunately kept the action in the late 16th century and gave the performers authentic costumes but held down the number and detail of the physical sets: we got just a few walls, standards, ladders, statues and whatnot to suggest the appearance of Elizabeth’s court without actually seeing it in full-bore action. Lloyd and her designer came up with one absolutely marvelous touch that added greatly to the appeal of the production: they had Elizabeth carried on stage inside a giant box, which she only occasionally is allowed to leave. Early on it becomes apparent that the box is a symbol for Elizabeth’s public role and the limitations put upon her by her need to reconcile her desires as a woman with her obligations as Queen. (Britten composed this right after Billy Budd, another opera whose story centers around an authority figure — Captain Vere of H.M.S. Indomitable — whose principal conflict is between his own sense of humanity and the rules he is obliged to follow to exercise his authority.)
Fortunately, since the opera was being presented by a British touring company Gloriana in Barcelona was sung in Britten’s and Plomer’s original English — and despite the restricted sound quality of the original one could still understand most of it — and the Spanish TV people put Spanish subtitles on it, which made watching it an odd experience. (I’ve seen one download of a French telecast of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten which didn’t have subtitles at all — not in English and not the French ones I would have expected, either.) Gloriana is a fascinating opera and one which grows on you as it progresses — especially once you realize that it is basically a set of historical tableaux and one is not going to get the thrilling, fast-paced, intense drama of Britten’s best operas, Peter Grimes and Billy Budd — and it reaches its height in the two big duets between Elizabeth (here sung by Josephine Barstow, the only cast member I’d previously heard of) and Essex (a quite nice-looking Nicholas Sears in a role created by and for Peter Pears, a.k.a. Mrs. Benjamin Britten), an openly romantic one (at least on his part; her reaction is considerably more enigmatic) in the first act and one of desperation and despair in the third.
The piece does tend to drag on after a while — I could have done with fewer of the big choruses and the folk dances which stop the action in its tracks (Britten seemed here to have been showing off the results of his researches into the history of British folk song) — and surprisingly little happens in the opera until the third act (much of the story until then centers on the conflict between Essex and Lord Mountjoy, his rival both at court and in love, since at the start of Act II we learn Mountjoy is having an affair with Essex’s wife), while the potentially gripping action in Act III (Essex returns from Ireland, lies and says he made a “truce” with Tyrone instead of getting his ass kicked, then the truth comes out, then he tries to raise the populace of London to support his plot, and then he gets caught and denounced — the plot has something of Shakespeare’s skepticism towards allowing the common people to be involved in politics; in Shakespeare’s history plays, all but one of which were premiered while Elizabeth was still alive and ruling, it’s only people who have no or shaky hereditary claims to the throne who show their desperation by irresponsibly appealing to the people for help in dethroning the rightful monarch) lends itself less well to Lloyd’s minimalist staging than the more static Acts I and II. (Incidentally, though the Spanish TV network listed the scenes according to Britten’s original three-act structure, the actual performance was in two acts, spotting the intermission between the two scenes of Britten’s original Act II.)
Despite its flaws, Gloriana is a major opera by a major composer with a tour de force role for the singer playing Elizabeth, who’s on stage almost throughout and whose music encompasses the full range of the soprano voice and requires skill in both dramatic decoration and coloratura. Certainly it’s a far greater work than the 19th century Italian attempts to dramatize Elizabeth’s life and reign: Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda (though that one at least has a respectable literary source — Schiller’s play about Mary, Queen of Scots and her rivalry with Elizabeth that ended with her execution in 1588, the year of the Armada) and Roberto Devereaux (which is also about the Elizabeth and Essex story) and Rossini’s Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra (which had little more to do with Elizabeth’s actual life than just using her name), and it deserves to be better known.