Richard Jones turned out another hilarious evocation of a school gym/church hall where Gloriana takes place as a Tudor play. This device clearly makes a tongue in cheek commentary on the advance of the “second Elizabethan age” with the coronation of ERII and Britten’s commission tied up to a royal gala. Ingeniously his proscenium is raised and in front of the stage a nervous mayor , officials and the technical staff of the church hall are waiting for the arrival of the young Queen Elizabeth II who duly shows up at both start and end of the show.
The sets and props by Ultz are beautifully conceptualised and executed within the framework of an amateur dramatics performance. Highlights include the hilarious Tudor huts on wheels representing the medieval City of London. In the Norwich section the big display of vegetables spelling out ER is hilarious as it is quintessentially English (something about marrows and giant veg in the countryside). And of course of all the oversized furniture, King Edward’s Chair on wheels and Elizabeth’s wreath topped dressing table should have their own postcode.
As usual with Jones consistency is underpinning everything, the bystanders on the side of the stage within a stage are looking bored stiff, a surly looking school mistress type giving joylessly cues, foley artists playing the lute for Essex’s two songs and also toll the bell for town crier.
Unfortunately the masque is terminally dull and marks a major sag in the flow of the evening. The choreography and the music are not of a very high standard (just think that John Cranko choreographed the première) also the strange decision by the Opera House to not allow an interval between Act One and Two making the audience sit through over 100 minutes tested our patience and the end of Act Two couldn’t come quickly enough.
Act Three contains Britten’s most accomplished dramatically music, with gorgeous writing for the strings and a much more elegiac attitude. The confrontation scene between her and Essex as well as the lonely finale has more than a passing resemblance to Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. The writing as it becomes more introspective it also gains dramatic weight making for a very strong second half.
One niggle with Jones’ direction would be that he denied the work the sombre conclusion Britten clearly wanted, by adding the reappearance of the royal party and a little girl to give them flowers. An odd choice since even the programme mentions repeatedly how Britten steered his librettist to this dark and sadness filled finale underlining the fragile mental state of the queen in the prospect of her own mortality. Was he maybe intending us to read it as a reference to our current queen facing the same dilemma as Elizabeth I?
The question of how to stage a Tudor themed opera remains, Jones makes a great case for a more comedic approach but it seems to also rob the work of its solemnity. But the sleekness and imagination are admirable and the execution is beyond reproach.
Amanda Roocroft sang the part in Hamburg and can imagine was a more compelling actress on stage than Susan Bullock. Who was very dramatically involved but any high-lying passages exposed the vocal problems she has with a broad vibrato that detracted from the otherwise very sharp delivery. Her pivotal prayer in Act One was suffused with great beauty, sculpting carefully phrases, but sometimes let down by her upper register. Overall it was more of an acting triumph and a less riveting vocal performance. The tessitura is fairly low for the role but when she verged high it seemed like a struggle on opening night. There have been reports that her production has been more even in subsequent shows which is good to know.
The welcome return of Toby Spence on the Royal Opera House stage was an unqualified success after his recent treatment for thyroid cancer. His Essex was a fully formed human being with flashes of brilliance thought the evening. His two lute songs were as lyrical as they were beautifully projected and loaded with meaning. He also danced away in the ball scene with endearing ebullience.
Patricia Bardon gave such a spirited performance and her smooth comforting contralto sound was so luxurious to almost verge on the obscene. Her plea to the Queen to save Essex from execution was intense and gorgeous, her horror at seeing the Queen wearing her dress suffused with the crushed anguish of a coquette.
Kate Royal unfortunately was underpowered with a voice I have always found fairly colourless and verging on the generic. It was a cruel casting decision as she had no chance opposite Bardon. Looking pretty in a dress in not what makes an opera singer.
Brindley Sherrat was a fantastic bard managing to be intense and in as great a voice as his Creon for ENO’s Medea. Now when will the RO cast him in big roles…sick of seeing him sidetracked for dubious imports. He is the whole package and deserves to be recognised more.
Ben Bevan gave a wonderful debut performance and thus another member of the very talented Bevan opera clan has adorned Covent Garden’s stage.
The chorus and the orchestra made a passionate contribution and made as good a case for Gloriana as a musical and choral work of substance. Paul Daniel conducted the last revival for Opera North so was a very safe pair of hands and did a splendid job with good pacing and a clear sense of dramatic progression.
In the libretto Essex calls Elizabeth ‘Queen of my life’ a few times…I wonder if it was a little gay household colloquialism that crept in as a naughty addition. I couldn’t stop thinking that Britten and Pears would have been hilarious calling each other Queen on my life at home…but that’s just me and my rampant and unfounded ideas. In any case, this was a very entertaining evening despite any shortcomings that could be easily attributed to Britten being on auto pilot rushing to complete the work for its 1953 première. It was definitely worth reviving for a new generation.
A few tweets from the evening
Curtain call video
Production shots on the ROH Flickr