Her Majesty has given Benjamin Britten

permission to write an opera in

connection with and celebration of

her coronation next year.

Confidential.

And so, Gloriana, the eighth of Benjamin Britten’s sixteen operas, was commissioned, Royal Warrant guaranteed, to celebrate the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. The instruction may have been a royal command, informally understated, on a scrap of paper, with the capital “M” of Majesty and “C” of Command casually misaligned on the Buckingham Palace typewriter – no Tipp-ex yet – but the choice of subject was down to the composer.

Well, Gloriana wasn’t the young Queen’s idea. Too self-aggrandising. She had been persuaded that Britten was just the thing to write a celebratory stage-thumping spectacle. Clearly, she and Prince Philip had not come across no bunting in our Borough Peter Grimes, or plank walking Billy Budd.

The concept was Benjamin Britten’s, inspired by the romance of a reborn Elizabethan Age, and the monarch was eventually persuaded to go along for the ride. He framed the subject less as a celebration, more as a retrospective on the first Elizabeth and a harbinger of the duties beckoning down the track during the probably long reign of the second.

Not even the prescient Britten could have conceived that his choice of title would be so apt for the 70 years that were to follow. During her annus horribilis in 1992, Elizabeth II must have reflected on Gloriana, although I bet she didn’t rent any DVDs. I like to think maybe it stiffened her resolve.

Back to coronation year. Two months after the death of George VI, Lord Harewood, an opera addict, persuaded Elizabeth II – bullied according to some observers – to commission the opera. When approached, Britten had insisted on the royal seal of approval, but probably did not expect a command in the post. Possibly he thought complicity would head off any awkward squad critics at the pass. The composer of Peter Grimes, Billy Budd was not universally popular.

Determined to avoid a lightweight Middle England maypole-romp and write a serious retrospective of the reign of Good Queen Bess, Britten insisted on commitment at the highest level.

In May 1952, two weeks before the coronation, a remarkable event took place. George and Marion Harewood hosted a dinner party at their Orme Square home for a playthrough of the opera.

Attendees numbered Britten, his partner Peter Pears, formidable soprano Joan Cross, who was to sing the role of Elizabeth I, and librettist, South African author and poet, William Plomer. And, astonishingly, guests of honour, HRH and Prince Philip, who had expressed an interest in understanding the music and the purpose of the piece.

History does not relate if the evening was a success, although Cross is said to have commented wryly, “I don’t think the Queen and Prince Philip enjoyed the evening any more than we did.”

That awkwardness apart, when Plomer visited the royal box during the interval at the premiere in Covent Garden he found: “Prince Philip had studied and knew the libretto better than I”. Probably a good job he didn’t encounter the Duke of Edinburgh in his better developed acerbic years.

What is beyond doubt, is that Britten was sensitive to HRH’s reception of the work, and occasional back references to Gloriana themes at future royal occasions would not have been included had the queen disliked it intensely.

The public reaction was almost universally hostile. The audience on the night was unenthusiastic. The composer was pilloried by the press. At curtain down Britten turned from the podium, muttering “Clap, damn you, clap”. Maypoles may have gone down better with the tiara crowd.

But, the final, challenging, revelation of Good Queen Bess as haggard, worn out by her commitment to her people, was sharply observational.

I think, to judge Britten’s emotional commitment to monarchy look no further than his arrangement of the National Anthem in 1961, which figured in the opening of his Snape Maltings musical home in Suffolk by the Queen, both in 1967 and 1970 post a 1969 fire. What a trouper was our monarch! Snape Maltings. So good, she opened it twice. That Britten arrangement was deployed to shattering emotional effect on the last night of the Covid-sparse 2020 Proms.

The Britten interpretation is probably the most sensitive and moving version of our much-mauled anthem in the repertoire. It moves from a whisper-start through a triumphant crescendo to conclude with a waterfall cascade of God Save the Queen.

Plot apart, as Mrs Lincoln’s inquisitor might have remarked, how do we rate the music? Answer. Not by its most popular Courtly Dances sequence. That is Britten’s light relief. Like judging a cake by its topping. Go on, dig into the duets, especially between Elizabeth and Essex. There be substance.

“Between” is advised, as they are certainly not together. These are examples of musical thrust and parry every bit as lethal as the Essex/Mountjoy swordplay at the opening.

In an early aria, Elizabeth I pledges to the nation a life of service, just as Elizabeth II dedicated hers to the Commonwealth in that Cape town broadcast as Princess Elizabeth in 1947. The allusion is the greatest compliment to their monarch any composer could have paid.

This sound world is Britten at his very best, ramping emotions, astute use of dazzling string passages, leaping intervals. The music, more than the libretto, reveals character. This may not be Britten’s best opera, but in my book it comes fourth, after Billy BuddPeter Grimes and The Turn of the Screw.

In an inspired, almost reflex action Annilese Miskimmon, Artistic Director of English National Opera (ENO), has commissioned a one-off staged production of Gloriana to commemorate the late Queen. Mark your diary for London’s Coliseum on 8th December. Because it’s a “one-nighter” an excellent cast has been drummed up at short notice.

A “bevy of ENO favourites” is on offer, baritone Charles Rice, lyric soprano Sophie Bevan, soprano and, appropriately, Harewood scholar Alexandra Oomans and baritone Alex Otterburn. Martyn Brabbins, ENO’s talented music director will be on the podium. The production will receive a concert staging. Expect swordfights and courtly dances.

A brief synopsis of the Gloriana plot:

At a royal tournament the ambitious Earl of Essex picks a fight with Lord Mountjoy and is wounded. The canny Elizabeth punishes them by requiring them henceforth to attend court together. A friendship is formed.

Cecil, the Queen’s Secretary, warns the monarch that Essex is at the Dominic Cummings end of the reliability scale and should not be appointed her Deputy in Ireland to quell the rebel, Tyrone. He also highlights the danger from Spain.

We now go royal walkabout to Norwich. It’s fair to wonder if, even then, Britten had one eye on a Snape Maltings opening in nearby Suffolk. A masque of Time and Concord – which contains some of Britten’s best folk tunes is the precursor for the public greeting events Elizabeth II would embrace, to make her trademark.

Essex, his sister, Lady Rich and Mountjoy, her lover, form a cabal and plan advancement to power. After a court dance Essex is at last appointed her Deputy in Ireland.

He pulls a Putin and his “special military operation” does not end well, except for Tyrone. On his return to London and insistence on an audience he finds the Queen an old woman. She reluctantly signs her favourite’s death warrant and reflects on the trials and tribulations of her reign.

Opera North mounted an excellent production of Gloriana in 1994. It resisted the temptation of village idiot distractions, focusing on the character conflicts that give the opera whatever weight it carries. Josephine Barstow is an unforgettable Elizabeth.

But, I suggest you start your Gloriana trail with footage of the original ROH 1953 production. Clanking armour and strangling ruffs of her court aside, this scary Joan Cross portrayal of Good Queen Bess underpins Britten’s serious purpose. Well worth a nostalgic look.

Gloriana may be rightly acknowledged as Britten’s problem opera. It has a structural problem. In effect, it is a series of montages rather than a continuous flow of action. The dramatic impact is fractured as it jumps from the conflict between Essex and Mountjoy; its resolution; the illicit affair between Mountjoy and Penelope Rich, Essex’s sister; Essex’s attempts to secure the Governorship of Ireland, so that he can quell the rebel Tyrone; the conflict between court factions – one led by Essex and Mountjoy, the other by Cecil and Raleigh; Essex’s unexplained failure in Ireland; his gratuitous attempt to grasp power; his eventual execution for his pains. 

The audience is left in the dark about the turbulent political backdrop of court intrigue, upon which the libretto sheds no light. Not a lot about singeing the King of Spain’s beard, either.

Good advice is to read Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History, upon which the opera was based. As a treatment of the book and history the opera is fatally flawed. Too much is taken as read.

All that said, the ENO’s Gloriana will be a “must see” this December. Perhaps the queues will snake round Trafalgar Square. And that will be the time to heed well other words of our late Queen.

During a reassuring Children’s Hour radio broadcast to evacuee children in 1940, alongside her sister Margaret, the young Princess Elizabeth concluded, “in the end, all will be well”. And, despite our ups and downs, in her 70-year reign, her presence in all of our lives ensured it mostly was. Gloriana, indeed.