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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Gloriana, op.53
(1953): Phyllida Lloyd’s adaptation for film [100:43]
Josephine Barstow (soprano) – Queen Elizabeth I; Tom Randle (tenor) – Essex; Emer McGilloway (mezzo) – Lady Essex; David Ellis (baritone) – Lord Mountjoy; Susannah Glanville (soprano) – Lady Rich; Eric Roberts (baritone) – Sir Robert Cecil; Clive Bayley (bass) – Sir Walter Raleigh
Chorus of Opera North
English Northern Philharmonia/Paul Daniel
Video Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Also includes interviews with Josephine Barstow, Phyllida Lloyd, Tom Randle, Paul Daniel in brief features Gloriana at Opera North [9:08]; Elizabeth and Essex [9:40]; The idea of the film [8:00]; Gloriana, a film [10:13]
NTSC 16:9; Colour; Region Code: All; LPCM Stereo; Digital DTS Surround. Subtitles English, French, German, Spanish, Italian
OPUS ARTE OA 0955 D [138:00]
 


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.
 
This 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.
 
It’s 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?’
 
So 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.
 
The 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.
 
The 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.
 
So 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.
 
Act 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.
 
Act 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.
 
Act 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.
 
The 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.
 
Essex 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.
 
The 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.
 
A 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.
 
Act 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.
 
Act 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.
 
The 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, is illusion.
 
I 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.
 
Philip 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.
 
This 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.

Mackerras’s 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.

To 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.
 
The 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.  
 
The 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. 
 
The 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.
 
Michael Greenhalgh
 

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