Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Gloriana, op. 53 (1953)
Susan Bullock (soprano) - Elizabeth I
Toby Spence (tenor) - Earl of Essex
Mark Stone (baritone) - Lord Mountjoy
Clive Bayley (bass) - Sir Walter Raleigh
Jeremy Carpenter (baritone) - Sir Robert Cecil
Kate Royal (soprano) - Lady Rich
Patricia Bardon (mezzo) - Countess of Essex
Brindley Sherratt (bass) - Blind Ballad-Singer
Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Paul Daniel
rec. live, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 24 June 2013
Director: Richard Jones
Video Director: Robin Lough
Bonus: An introduction to Gloriana; Britten’s Aldeburgh; cast gallery
Sound Formats: LPCM 2.0 stereo; DTS 5.1 surround
Picture Format: filmed in HD. Aspect ratio 16:9
Region: 0 (all regions)
Subtitles: English (original language), French, German, Japanese, Korean
OPUS ARTE OABD7134D Blu-ray [163:00: opera + 13:00: bonus]
This 2013 live recording of Gloriana, commissioned to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation, is both a 60th birthday celebration for her reign and of the opera’s first performance at Covent Garden. Director Richard Jones has used various devices to remind us of the passing of time since the birth of the opera and of its own historicity. He also makes innovations in presentation. For instance, while Britten writes a Prelude full of the revelry and rowdiness outside a tilting ground during a tournament, Jones makes this a zany background for a procession of monarchs. These range from Elizabeth II herself back to James I, reminding us that Elizabeth II was only 27 in 1953. Fifteen schoolboys in 1950s uniform, one or two letters per boy, process to front of stage and spell out the royal dynasties and do this to indicate the location for ensuing scenes. Whatever the setting, with various Elizabethan style accessories, the broader scene is of a 1953 Coronation Hall, church hall-like with period radiators at the sides. Conductor Paul Daniel points this out in the DVD bonus Introduction and the intended ‘flux between the two ages’.
The basis here, reasonably enough, is the music, being 20th century but assimilating Elizabethan mannerisms. Such a mix is sometimes found in design too, but the idea that it might be featured more generally is more innovative and daring. I wish Jones had gone further and provided a blend of 16th and 20th century costume in the major characters. No, they stay firmly Elizabethan. Jones’s ubiquitous reminder of the 20th century is to have the stage crew’s involvement in the proceedings and accompanying instrumentalists conspicuous. When I saw the production at Covent Garden I was able to ignore this, but it’s thrust into your view by the video director. Does this enhance your appreciation of the performance or detract from it? I think the latter.
You’ll take from Act 1 Scene 1 what you should. Being placed behind the wall where the tournament is taking place, briefly indicated by a merry-go-round horse head. This allows Essex, played with suitable volatility by Toby Spence, to reveal his jealousy of Mountjoy who literally gets the Queen’s favour to wear on his arm. When the latter comes out they quarrel, have a sword fight and Essex is wounded in the arm. His wound in this production is already sewn like a fragment of red ribbon on his shirt. The Queen, Susan Bullock, enters and puts the quarrel to rest in battleaxe fashion. Clive Bayley’s rounded comic aria as Walter Raleigh, mimicking the movements of blue fly and bee, effectively lightens the tone. Britten’s writing for the trumpets is both splendid and garish yet the Queen’s yearning for peace is to haunt the opera. A replica of the 1953 Coronation gold coach fashioned from red, yellow and white roses glides on to end the scene. This is a nice bit of fantasy, linking with the recurring chorus of homage ‘Green leaves are we, / Red rose our golden Queen’.
Act 1 Scene 2 is suddenly intimate and suited to intimacies. Bullock negotiates with ease the wide-ranging line and conflicting emotions of her arioso. Here she explains that she is wedded to the realm but still wants some love, before Jeremy Carpenter’s finely nuanced aria as Robert Cecil about the art of government. Spence sings the famous lute-song, ‘Happy were he’ with sensitivity, beauty and maturity, tucked away on the edge of the set with lute on lap and legs crossed. Britten uses a harp for the lute but the stage illusion is abandoned in favour of showing the harpist playing in the wings. The contrasts are neatly made with Spence’s vaunting ‘Queen of my life!’ entry in the scene. The following duet demonstrates considerable empathy between Bullock and Spence. Then comes Essex’s dismissal, the Queen’s regret, briefly stroking the lute Essex has just ‘played’ and being given communion - added stage business by Jones - which becomes the moment for her confession. Bullock’s passionate prayer closing the scene is effective because she is at last alone on stage yet is sharing it with us.
Act 2 Scene 1, the visit to Norwich and masque has its citizens, the chorus, in a central stand dressed in 1950s garb. They catch the yearning of the choral dance to Concord, just as they show affection as well as formal homage to the Queen. The livelier dances would have benefited from a little more zip. As Spirit of the Masque Andrew Tortise provides cleanly articulated introductions to its dances. The dancer Time has a sash displaying ‘1485-?’, allowing the viewer the gratification of working out the reference to the Tudor dynasty.
Act 2 Scene 2 sees Mountjoy paddling a real boat across a fake river backcloth, Jones’s sportive invention. In Mountjoy’s tryst with Lady Penelope Rich, the latter is lusciously played as a femme fatale by Kate Royal. Earlier dubbed by the Queen ‘The dark Penelope’, she appears to us in virginal white. This is a neat touch for one visibly engaged in a fullness of passion that Essex and the Queen only contemplate. She now calms the impatience of Essex by advocating and praying for usurping the throne.
Masked dancers in black begin Act 2 Scene 3, the dance sequence at Whitehall. This maintains the feel of the undercurrent of intrigue. Jones’s cunningly added stage business continues: Essex wants to dance with the Queen but she, totally mistress of ceremonies, prefers Raleigh. Two courtiers are required to elevate the Queen in Lavolta but the trombones’ glissandi could have been more raucous. The scene’s coup de théâtre is the Queen’s stealing of Lady Essex’s splendid yellow dress. She dons and flaunts it before the court declaring it unbecoming for either of them which it undoubtedly is when paired with the Queen’s vast petticoats for her orange dress. This show of spite is relished by Bullock before the chastened but sobbing Patricia Bardon left only in her undergarments. This is a vivid if extreme realization by Jones of the stage direction’s ‘wearing a plain dress’. The royal party departs and then comes consolation in the lovely trio ‘Good Frances, do not weep’ sung by the same forces who were plotting treason. It is beautifully done here, like a prayer for all spurned humanity and has a serenity noticeably lacking in the previous scene. The Queen returns, gives Essex the job he craves, Lord Deputy in Ireland, and her hand for the final dance. A closing added extra from Jones: after everyone else has gone, Spence pushes her throne centre-stage and basks in it.
It is a different Queen we see in Act 3. Essex, returning from his fighting in Ireland with commission unfulfilled, bursts in on the Queen virtually bald without wig before she has dressed. Bullock seems years older with frustration and crabbed but also unflinchingly analytical in arioso: ‘the flame in the rose is lost’. We witness the dying embers of their former affinity, ‘happy were we’ echoing the Act 1 lute-song but Bullock and Spence now far apart from each other. A dropped façade indicates a dressing table and there’s a lovely becalming solo and chorus as the Queen is adorned, in black anticipating the eventual warrant of Essex’s execution and her own death. Cecil strengthens her earlier conclusion that Essex is untrue. She delivers ‘It is I who have to rule’ with startling disgust.
Act 3 Scene 2 provides a kind of light relief in the Blind Ballad-Singer’s song, the news the city elders want delivered on a broader, abstract plain with great poise by Brindley Sherratt. The elders are equally reflective and dismissive of events, whether Essex’s army of boys - those 15 schoolboys finally with a brief singing role - or his lieutenant trying to drum up support.
In the final scene the boys bring ravens with their placards because the initial setting is the Tower of London. The music is dark and Bayley’s Raleigh greets the councillors’ sentence of execution with dark relish. Carpenter’s Cecil remains cautious about the Queen’s response. This is wise for Bullock, when alone, shows us she is torn apart, ‘I love and yet am forced to seem to hate’ and, the crux of the opera, ‘since from myself my other self I turn’. The Penelope/Mountjoy/Frances trio is a contrite one, pleading for mercy for Essex. There’s just one sign of the Queen as a humane woman, when she tells Frances that whatever she decides her children will be safe. Once Penelope alludes to Essex’s greatness in his own right and, in particular, his special relationship with the Queen, Elizabeth signs the death warrant. The rest is about her death, clinging to her throne and life, justifying her actions as ever having been for the people’s good, vindicated by their song of homage, ‘Green leaves’ as epitaph. Director Jones gives us one more extra detail, a rather touching one: his Elizabeth II comes on with her party and stands before Elizabeth I in a kind of homage.
To sum up. At its moments of greatest drama and pathos this 2013 production is undeniably effective. However, for a work already over-crammed with goodies, the extra focus on stage crew set-up and boys with their placards adds 16 minutes to the length of presentation over that of the only other complete performance on DVD, the 1984 ENO production conducted by Mark Elder (review). This 2013 performance convinced me that the opera is too long. Had its premiere not received an unfair critical drubbing, Britten would have later edited it to advantage, as he did Billy Budd. In the bonus Introduction Bullock empathizes with Elizabeth having to suppress the feminine aspect of her character to wield power in a man’s world. I suggest she overdoes this. She would be more sympathetic were she to present the more melting aspect of her character more often. She also talks about Elizabeth being tormented because of this suppression and that she certainly conveys. In the same Introduction Spence says Essex wants to be King of the world and doesn’t think about the consequences of his genuine flirtation with Elizabeth. Both those aspects also come across clearly.
This 2013 interpretation is superior in staging, singing and characterization to that of 1984. The latter does offer crisper, more rhythmically incisive accompaniment from Mark Elder. Paul Daniel here enjoys superior sound quality. There’s another DVD, also conducted by Daniel, which is Phyllida Lloyd’s film adaptation of the work (review). Controversially this mixes a performance with a documentary style presentation about performing. This seems to me a better way of showing the blend of historic and modern, illusion and reality, than Jones’ approach. Another apparent disadvantage, the cutting of the opera by about a third to 100 minutes, turns out not to be a disadvantage at all as it provides a firmer focus to the action and its projection. Most tellingly of all, Josephine Barstow’s Elizabeth and Tom Randle’s Essex display more pervasive emotion and chemistry in their relationship. This creates a more gripping operatic experience.
Britten discography & review index: Gloriana