Gloriana is an opera about the last years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth
I, in particular the conflict between her public persona
as ruler and private infatuation with the Earl of Essex.
first Gloriana on DVD, a film adaptation of the 1999
Opera North revival, is a blend of the controversial, the
regrettable and the magnificent. The controversial hits you
straightaway. No settling in period here while the orchestra
plays the Prelude. Rather a disorientating beginning, with
the Prelude playing but a golden horse being hoisted into
the theatre rear entrance and a commotion as everyone is
getting ready because Josephine Barstow, who takes the title
role, hasn’t arrived.
a tribute to the urgency of Britten’s music and the film
direction that you get caught up in this. But Barstow turns
up, enters her dressing room, closes the door and then silence.
She turns on the intercom and catches the orchestral reprise
of the chorus ‘Green leaves are we, Red rose our golden Queen’,
gazes at herself in the mirror and seems to ponder ‘what’s
it all about?’
what we have here is a fusion of opera and documentary, an
experience from the audience and performers’ perspective
in turn. If you like this, it keeps you stimulated, ready
to expect the unexpected. If you don’t, you’ll feel it’s
neither one thing nor the other. There are gains and losses.
The loss is that the fight scene between Mountjoy and Essex
is sidetracked by the intercut quick-fire dressing of the
Queen. The gain is that we get the Queen’s eye-view of her
entrance: the ambivalent faces that meet her, the scenery
opening before her as she’s then revealed from the audience-view
carried in a huge sedan chair as in the box cover shown above.
Later we get her view of Mountjoy and Essex kneeling before
her and, beyond them, pit, orchestra, conductor and audience.
regrettable aspect of this DVD is that it’s not the complete
opera. In Act 1 Scene 1 the last 6 bars of the Prelude are
cut and the entire section 2, the tournament, except the
last 10 bars, that orchestral reprise I mentioned and Mountjoy’s
instructions to his page. The director had to produce for
BBC broadcast a film of 100 minutes. This means a third of
the music disappears. The result is still reasonably coherent
but I’ll point out where the cuts come and their outcome
for the present film. For instance, the loss of the description
of the tournament means the opera begins with the fight between
Essex and Mountjoy. This makes Essex seem more hot-headed
as we haven’t seen his jealousy building up at the Queen
favouring Mountjoy. It also suggests the opera is going to
focus on action, whereas it’s more about states of mind.
first 18 bars of the Act 1 Scene 2 Prelude are cut. This
makes for a swifter change of dress for the Queen, largely
done for her, an equally dexterous amused gossip session
with Cecil as they speed through the wings and more surprise
in this locale at her sudden declaration of love for Essex
(tr. 6 17:45). However, when she reassures Cecil she is wedded
only to the realm, the Queen is back on her chair of state.
Even more effective is the camerawork which places the Queen
in focus, reading state documents and concerned, despite
the light-hearted lute-song of Essex (tr. 7 24:06, the timing
continuous) behind her and not in focus. This camerawork
points up the sinister orchestral undercurrent. But it equally
captures the Queen’s wish almost to go into a trance for
the reverie of a second lute-song of some far off place and
the intimacy with which Essex responds.
what’s magnificent? The credibility of the passion conveyed
between Elizabeth and Essex yet also the Queen’s control.
She dismisses Essex and then delivers at first an imperious
soliloquy (tr. 8 33:43), then a prayer, presented in this
film first as thought, with lips and eyes closed and in distress,
pacing before an array of candles. Then the latter part (from
36:56) is shown in presentation directly to the audience.
2 Scene 1, the Queen’s visit to Norwich, is cut. Admittedly
this doesn’t advance the drama, but does show the mutual
affection of Queen and subjects and Essex anxious for military
command in Ireland. The real loss is a musical one, the six
choral dances, brilliantly written in an updated madrigal
style for semi-chorus.
2 Scene 2 is also cut. This does advance the drama as Mountjoy,
Lady Rich, Essex and Lady Essex in quartet begin to conspire
to displace the Queen. Of more musical interest is the adulterous
love duet between Mountjoy and Lady Rich, vaunting the pleasure
the Queen has in Act 1 Scene 2 denied herself with Essex.
2 Scene 3 features six dances at Whitehall Palace, in parallel
with the six choral dances at Norwich. These Whitehall dances
survive intact on this DVD and are imaginatively filmed with
close camera stage action at ground level contrasted with
overhead camera kaleidoscopic patterning. The side drummer
beating the rhythms on stage is masked in the manner you
feel is a premonition of the executioner.
nub of the scene is vividly conveyed. While the courtiers
are generally in elegant black and the Queen later arrives
in a very fetching ice blue, Lady Essex appears in dazzling
vermilion that receives an arch look from the Queen. While
the ladies change their undergarments between dances the
Queen snatches this dazzler and returns to model it herself,
too short with petticoats showing, sizzling spite as she
soon rejects it.
is then summoned by the Queen and her council. You see him
wondering what is to happen to him. It’s good news, a commission
to put down the rebellion in Ireland. But his apprehension
has less force if you don’t know of his plotting in the previous
scene, as does Lady Rich and Mountjoy’s welcoming of an army
for Essex for a future coup.
curtain falls to thunderous applause. Behind it we see Randle
on his horse conducting the applause in an adrenaline burst.
As the Act 3 Scene 1 Prelude plays Barstow struggles to forge
a path through the crowd. Back at her dressing room she pulls
the padded bench across to block the door, takes the phone
off the hook and looks at the paper on her table. ‘George
Mitchell. The man to bring peace to Ulster?’. She’s startled
by a shock of recognition. This is exactly when the women
courtiers’ chorus is singing about the lack of news from
Ireland. She sees them opaquely, candle lit, through the
gauze draping around the wooden frame which so often encases
her as Queen, as if trapping her in that persona. Now it
represents her dressing room.
dishevelled Essex bolts in and tears down the drapery to
reveal ‘an ageing woman unadorned’. But the recriminations
are about his failure in Ireland, seen as one of trust. A
passionate, distraught duet ensues, ‘Dear name I have loved’ (tr.
14 67:57), really the climax of the private focus of the
opera and compellingly done as it calms into the recollection
of the Act 1 Scene 2 love duet, with the text now ‘Happy were we’ (69:02).
Essex is dismissed with a kind of firm tenderness and the
Queen, convulsing with sorrow, sinks into a weary heap. There’s
no stage direction that she do this but it’s very poignant.
The maids come gently to dress her, in a gorgeous trance-like
make-believe chorus of adornment. But once dressed, when
Cecil comes in, she’s the iron lady again.
3 Scene 2 is cut. This showcases a kind of popular culture
lute-song from a Blind Ballad Singer with gittern, which
is really an urbanely reflective angle on Essex’s escape
from house arrest and failed attempt at rebellion. The comic
choral turns around this are fun, especially the rabble of
boys, but the light relief is rather unsettling. Yet without
this scene Essex’s punishment appears more arbitrary.
3 Scene 3, is presented complete, save that the Prelude is
replaced by the opening seven bars of the City Crier’s statement
from Act 3 Scene 2 which proclaim Essex a traitor. This final
scene’s highlight is the Queen’s last tortured aria after
Essex’s trial guilty verdict, ‘I grieve, yet dare not show
my discontent’ (tr. 18 83:50) with Barstow totally identifying
with and involving us in her inner turmoil.
Queen’s mix of physical, as well as emotional, frailty and
mental strength remains. She’s hoisted up, as if from a coffin,
to justify her conduct to her subjects, the audience, and
you see the backstage staff caught up in the sheer power
of this. She’s then helped from the stage and for a little
while beyond the stage. You start to think, how much does
such a taxing role take out of an artist. Then, in contrast
to Act 3 Scene 1, it’s all about the removal of adornments.
First off comes the Queen’s red wig to reveal the same thin,
faded auburn scalp of that first scene. But then, as the ‘Green
leaves’ chorus is heard to close the opera, that’s revealed
as a bald cap, with Barstow’s bright red hair beneath and
she starts removing the pallor from her face. All, then,
compared the only complete recording on audio CD, that made
in 1992 by the Chorus and Orchestra of the Welsh National
Opera/Charles Mackerras (Decca 4762593). Here Josephine Barstow’s
earlier performance in the title role finds her in purer
voice with less vibrato but also less dramatic, agonized,
crustily aged (52 rather than 59). The Queen’s actual age
when she sent Essex to Ireland was 66. Even in the first
scene Barstow’s ‘I’ll not be crossed’, here a queenly statement,
has in the DVD the bite of a curse. By the time of the business
with Lady Essex’s dress she’s spitting venom.
Langridge, the Essex for Mackerras, doesn’t have the youthful
ardour of Tom Randle in the DVD, though he does treat the
melisma on ‘happy’ in the second lute-song more flowingly.
At 53 he was a little mature for the part in comparison with
Randle’s 41. Though Essex was actually 33, Randle’s long
hair removes some years, as long as you forget the film showed
him donning a wig during the Prelude.
works the other way in the DVD with Raleigh. Although Clive
Bayley has a fine, mellow tone, at 39 he doesn’t appear ‘of
riper age’ and lacks the character of Mackerras’s Richard
Van Allan at 57, though Raleigh was actually only 47. And
in all the other roles I’d say Mackerras’s singers have a
slight edge on Daniel’s. For example, the quartet ‘Good Frances,
do not weep’ after Lady Essex’s dress is stolen by the Queen
is smoother and more touching.
handling of the orchestration has more finesse. For example,
the pianissimo of the tremolando strings, then sforzando
in Raleigh’s song in the first scene depicting the fly and
the bee is more marked and spicy. The courtly dances of Act
2 Scene 3 are beautifully pointed and one can sense Britten’s
enjoyment in composing them. The grotesque nature of the
accompaniment when the Queen is wearing Lady Essex’s dress
is more barbed. On the other hand Daniel in this DVD benefits
from surround sound, so there’s a greater weight to the orchestral
backing, particularly telling in those passages where a baleful
undercurrent is growing, as in the emergence of what Britten
intended was the pit orchestra’s atmospherics in tandem with
the stage orchestra playing the Coranto to close Act 2 Scene
3. By taking the Galliard faster than Mackerras, Daniel’s
following La Volta has to be faster and raunchier still.
sum up. I thought my attitude to the controversial aspect
of this DVD, the mix of performance and documentary, would
be that this was suited to a one-off broadcast but not repeated
playings. Not so. I came to respect how crafted, even balletic,
the ‘documentary’ element was. The point is also well made
that there’s an emotional as well as physical dimension to
performance that it’s easy to overlook.
cuts remain regrettable, especially as it would have been
possible to film them from the complete Opera North performance,
also directed by Phyllida Lloyd and the basis of this DVD.
This could then have been added for optional viewing as DVD
extras and marketed as unseen footage.
extras we get, with a copyright date of 2006 were apparently
made some time after the film which is copyright 1999. They
are fairly conventional documentary style juxtaposed comments
of the director, conductor and principals divided into various
topics as noted in this review’s heading with intercut clips
from the film. Inevitably the tone is laudatory, but they
provide some insight with regard to the film’s genesis and
technique. For example, Lloyd on Barstow: “her inner life
is so rich that you could ask her to look into a mirror and
think about death or betrayal and put a camera on it in big
close-up and know that you would be experiencing something
quite profound.” Close-ups are indeed a distinctive component
of the film.
magnificence of Barstow’s Queen is ultimately what counts
and makes the experience of this DVD unforgettable. But Randle
is also a fine match in the love duets. Daniel brings a great
urgency to Britten’s orchestration, Anthony Ward’s sets and
costumes and Lloyd’s production are also first-rate.
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