Sunday 7 July 2013

Gloriana at the Royal Opera, or, A Window on a Vanished World

A slightly belated review of the performance on Thursday 4th July 2013.

Near the back of Royal Opera programmes is usually printed a short essay detailing previous productions and casting of the evening's work at the House. On this occasion it revealed that Britten's Gloriana hasn't been staged by the company since 1954. The work is genuinely a “problem” piece. But there are marvellous musical elements, Richard Jones's production is brilliantly devised, and taken altogether this is another important contribution to the Britten centenary.

The programme argues for parallels with Verdi in terms of the juxtaposition of public and private dramas. This is a somewhat unfortunate comparison because it brings Don Carlo to mind with which Gloriana does not compare. And yet the point is a valid one. Britten and his librettist William Plomer do consistently juxtapose the public (for example Elizabeth's public reception in Nottingham complete with masque) with the private (Elizabeth & Essex's two confrontations). The work is at its best in those two private encounters. Essex's lute song, and its later moving recall during their final, fateful meeting, show music and text in a much more harmonious partnership than is always the case elsewhere. Elsewhere, most particularly in the masque and in the rebellion scene (which is only reported by a Blind Ballad-Singer) some judicious trimming of the score and text was needed. Both Britten and Plomer do fall short in key moments. Plomer is too fond of obscure words, and the lyric for the chorus's evocation of Elizabeth's significance (“Green leaves are we, red rose our golden queen”) may be echt Tudor but it can't carry the emotional weight required. Britten also has problems with the ending where Elizabeth's final phrases are spoken, almost never effective in my experience in an operatic setting and this is not an exception. But despite these issues it is simply unjustified to dismiss this as an operatic dud.

Up to now I have liked two of Richard Jones's productions (as regular readers will know). This bumps that number up to three. I thought it was brilliantly done. God help you, as I've said about other things, if you tried to play it completely straight – i.e. as just an Elizabethan period piece. Instead Jones sets it in 1953. We seem to be watching a royal command performance, but removed from the plush Royal Opera and instead a make-do and mend, slightly amateurish, austerity Britten premiere. I gather others have found this mocking, but I found something really haunting about it. The text itself is somewhat ambivalently evoking one Elizabethan golden age. The staging frames it with that second imagined golden moment, and at this distance now suggests something fragile and unfulfilled. The conceit allows for a wonderful visual cleverness in the staging – the highlight being the boat in which Mountjoy arrives in the garden in Act Two Scene Two. Oh that we could have more such visual magic in contemporary opera stagings. But what is also notable, and something Jones isn't always good on, is the way all that pageantry and visual richness melts away at crucial moments. When we need to focus on a confrontation Jones shows absolute grasp of tension and stillness – again the Essex/Elizabeth scenes stand out in this respect. And then there's the final image. As the two Elizabeths stare at each other, Britten stands watching from the side, clasping Essex's (Pears) hand. Again, eloquent and moving.

Performance wise all is done to a pretty high standard. Of the minor roles there are especially well characterised performances from Jeremy Carpenter as Cecil and Brindley Sherratt as the Ballad-Singer. The women were less satisfactory, up in the Amphitheatre Kate Royal seemed almost inaudible at key moments – especially the final confrontation with Elizabeth. It was great to see Toby Spence back on stage as Essex. He was in excellent form both dramatically and vocally. I had much looked forward to hearing Susan Bullock again after her stunning performance in Elektra in 2008. But I think I agree with whoever it was I saw on twitter or in one of the reviews who suggested that the role wasn't quite a perfect vocal fit. Either that, or it's just a curious voice. She has a superb sense of drama, a marvellous softness in places, and a rich chest voice. The top has power but tended to be just a little bit sour – but the thing that makes me think this is an issue of part/voice fit is that elsewhere there's no sense of a voice which is ragged. Dramatically she was spot on. The Royal Opera Chorus were on typically fine form, as were the Orchestra, with Paul Daniel on the podium making the best case for the work.

Overall this is not a work to stand in the same class as Grimes or Budd, or (for me emotionally) the still unjustly neglected Paul Bunyan. But it's much more than mere commemorative pageantry and deserves this significant revival. Hopefully this production won't be one of those that disappear after a single outing.

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