It’s such a privilege to see a rare work. Whatever else I might say about the Voicebox/Opera in Concert presentation of Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana on the occasion of the composer’s centennial, I’m thankful for this encounter with the score.
This sample of Gloriana –an opera recounting the tale of Elizabeth the 1st and Essex—is especially precious because it’s so rarely performed. The first production, on the occasion of the Coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953, was not well received, leading me to wonder about it reception history and to listen to this performance with an ear to why it might have been judged so harshly compared to Britten’s other operas. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, when Britten & his collaborators sought to invoke one of the greatest English monarchs when her namesake ascended the throne.
It’s not rocket science. Did Britten think to mention to those who commissioned him to write this opera, that the first act would be full of celebration, but that the last act would be a massive downer concerned with mortality, especially in context with what went before? It’s as though someone staged the Nutcracker in reverse, beginning with all the entertainments, and ending with the angst and conflict, and switching it from the PG children’s story to something much riskier.
On top of everything else—that is, having decided to adopt a scenario that begins with good-times and ends with sadness & death—it’s also a study in the nature of power relationships. That part of the opera is totally fascinating, by the way, but probably didn’t win Britten any additional supporters in the charged atmosphere of the coronation, when I’d assume that there would be assumptions of a sort of political correctness. I’m thinking of three parts of Britten’s opera in particular:
1) At one point at a party where Elizabeth has been dancing, she calls the ladies out of the room to change their linen, and then contrives to put on Lady Essex’s dress, that she’d worn a short while before, humiliating the woman. I don’t know if this incident is a historically verified incident or something invented for the opera, but either way it shows Elizabeth as a commanding personality. I imagine the young royal couple (Philip and his wife, whether it was “Princess Elizabeth” or the newly crowned Queen) squirming as they watched this scene.
2) Almost the entire portrayal of Robert Devereax, Earl of Essex, is like an ongoing display of testosterone, making him one of the more interesting characters I’ve seen onstage in awhile, even in a concert performance. We watch this macho man over-compensating from the beginning, until he’s gradually humiliated in his disastrous Ireland adventure, and executed. Again, I can’t help thinking of Philip & Elizabeth sitting, perhaps exchanging glances at one another and giggling. But the guests at the occasion? Squirming.
3) And there’s even a line that calls attention to the odd gender relationship. Elizabeth says (I don’t recall the exact words) something like “he has touched our sceptre”. It struck me as weird, as though the Queen were accusing him of touching her penis-symbol. Maybe the royals wouldn’t have noticed anything odd about this line, and maybe it’s just me.
There’s one other reason –probably the key reason—why Gloriana has been a failure, and it’s a doozey. (hmm! Spell-check seems to know that word)
We’re in the last fifteen minutes of the opera and suddenly whoops it’s as though the tracks that the express train is on suddenly end and we’re riding on dirt instead. The text in two instances screams for something sung, a major musical thought. And instead Britten asks the singer to speak instead. Elizabeth narrates a letter as though she were a refugee from a Raymond Chandler novel. And then Essex does the same.
I couldn’t help thinking that when Britten was trying to finish the end of the opera maybe he ran out of time composing his commission. This is, after all, a very extraordinary occasion. It’s not as though he could call up Mr & Mrs Mountbatten and ask for an extension, to have them put off the coronation. And so they took a shortcut borrowed from movies, and one that’s not really operatic.
That being said – that I’ve more or less sided with history’s dismissal of this opera—maybe it’s time for the public to discover what a stunning piece Britten has composed. Whatever you think of the opera as a celebration of the occasion of Elizabeth’s coronation, it’s a magnificent piece of music theatre, containing some of Britten’s most beautiful music. The cinematic ending is indeed a letdown, the last act is indeed dark –like so many other operas actually—and yet Gloriana is still a fabulous piece deserving to be produced.
Now, after that lengthy preamble, I must acknowledge the impressive treatment given the work by Voicebox/Opera in Concert. Betty Waynne Allison commanded the stage whenever she appeared as Elizabeth, both vocally and physically. While some variations of the Elizabeth story include unattractive or insecure monarchs, this time we’re in the presence of a radiant Gloriana brimming with confidence. I only wish the role were bigger, given how self-assured the singing was. Adam Luther as her consort Essex was every bit her match. The role is written as a bit of a vocal show-off, with much of the role lying very high in the tenor range. Of the remaining cast Jennifer Ann Sullivan was the most impressive, both in her confident body language and her powerful top.
Peter Tiefenbach played through the score with great care & accuracy, giving us a remarkable welcome to this unfamiliar work. Robert Cooper led the Opera in Concert chorus, in a work full of gorgeous choral writing, sung with elegance & delicacy, which is probably authentic. If I have one quibble –and it would be with both Cooper & Tiefenbach—it’s that the work was so carefully re-created that it failed to seem operatic; or is that how the work is written? We were in the tiny Jane Mallett Theatre, but except for the two women I cited, the volume was so respectful that the effect was more like chamber music than opera.
Their season of anniversaries continues Feb 2nd with Hippolyte et Aricie on the 250th Anniversary of Rameau’s death, and Stiffelio March 23rd commemorating Verdi’s bicentennial.