What tumult must have been rushing through young Queen Elizabeth II’s mind. Crowned on 6th June 1953, here she was, a mere six days later, in Covent Garden, watching from the only too visible crucible of the royal box, an opera portraying in uncompromising detail the reign and demise of her namesake, Elizabeth I. Had she been invited to witness a sneak preview of her reign to come?
Gloriana was a commission by the Queen to Benjamin Britten to mark her coronation. She had been persuaded by her cousin, Lord Harewood, a director of The Royal Opera House (ROH), to ask the controversial composer to pen a work, couched in the conventional general terms of royal commissions.
Not, specifically, an opera. Certainly not a highly charged piece stripping bare the challenges of the new Elizabethan age by drawing on the turbulent history of the past. Yet, when it became apparent that the ROH was reluctant to cough up as the project took shape it was subtly made known that the royal treasury would step in. ROH stumped up.
Britten was playing with fire. He was already deeply suspect as a registered “conchie”, conscientious objector. In 1939, he and his partner, tenor Peter Pears, had high tailed it to New York as hostilities threatened. They remained in America in 1942, returning only when their classification as conscientious objectors had been negotiated with the authorities. Churchill’s government had hard-headedly calculated that Britten could be of more use in Britain than stranded across the Atlantic.
Then there was the openly homosexual relationship with Pears. In the 1950’s, prosecutions in England for homosexual activity topped 8,000 annually. Britten and Pears benefited from the blind eye of legal scrutiny. Their relationship was no secret. Royal patronage was risky in the face of social opprobrium.
Comment at the time assumed the Queen and Prince Philip had been expecting a post coronation celebration. Something like the ghastly Royal Variety performances later inflicted annually on our long-suffering head of state. But be under no such illusion. By the time they were treading the ROH’s red carpet and forming the glittering, much-tiaraed reception line, the royal couple knew exactly what lay ahead.
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Highly unusually, weeks before, they had attended a run through of Gloriana at Harewood’s London flat. It was a remarkable occasion and, in my view, underpins the seriousness of Britten’s purpose in composing the piece, and his concern that it be fully appreciated by his commissioner.
The full involvement of Her Majesty, her understanding that she and the Covent Garden audience were to witness not simple pageant, but a stark depiction of the challenges of rule and the steady encroachment of years, bear their own witness to Gloriana’s significance.
Tout court, the opera used the Elizabethan past to paint the future beckoning a young queen. To prepare her for the trials that lay ahead.
So, when English National Opera (ENO’s) December scheduling of a concert staged version of Gloriana coincidentally followed hard on the heels of Queen Elizabeth II’s death, the opera company deftly marked the performance as a tribute to the late monarch. A highly appropriate musical bookend for her 70 year reign.
And what a mighty bookend this Gloriana proved to be. I think the tightly framed drama of the piece suits ENO’s concert rather than a fully staged version. There are fewer distractions of a wandering chorus and makeweight servants to dull the focus on the intense interactions of the main characters.
The orchestral sound, being located backstage instead of in the pit, blends better with the voices, never overwhelming the cast.
Here’s what happens, in brief. We are in England, late 16th century.
Lord Mountjoy, a fresh arrival at court, wins a jousting tournament.
When he turned up at court, aged 20, Elizabeth scrutinised him “as she was wont to do, and to daunt young men she knew not”, until he blushed. His embarrassment was attributed to a natural modesty, “a kind of backwardness” which, it was thought, was likely to impede his career.
Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex and a queen’s favourite was fired with jealousy. Essex challenges Mountjoy to a duel and is wounded. The queen, who is adept at playing admirers off against each other, scolds the men for their jealousy.
William Cecil, the queen’s chief adviser, spy and tittle tattle merchant alerts the boss to an affair between Penelope Rich, Essex’ sister and Mountjoy. Essex woos the queen on the lute, seeking a commission to attack the Irish rebel, Tyrone. The queen prays for strength.
Immediately, the audience is immersed in the heady world of high politics and basic court intrigue. Netflix’ Harry and Meghan has nothing on this. No-one complains about being shouted at.
We are taken on a Royal tour to Norwich. Elizabeth II was to go on to perfect the art of the walkabout pioneered by her predecessor.
A masque is given in the queen’s honour. Notably, Elizabeth pays courteous attention to the local grandees and the crowds who have turned out to pay fealty. Again, and again the place of her people in her heart is emphasised by the queen. The then Princess Elizabeth’s pledge of a life of service to her subjects during her 21st birthday 1947 broadcast from Cape Town comes to mind.
Meanwhile, Mountjoy and Penelope enjoy a tryst in the garden. Essex becomes uppity, denouncing the queen for thwarting his military plans. The courtiers dance a set of five “Courtly Dances” – the best-known music from the opera – during which dancers are thrown into the air by their partners. The ladies retire.
To punish the glitzy Lady Essex for wearing too fancy a dress, the queen has it stolen and wears it herself, much to Lady Essex’ discombobulation. In a delightful touch, the ENO ensured the dress did not fit Elizabeth, remaining revealingly undone at the back when she artfully turned away from the audience.
Essex is appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland, a put up or shut up strategy disapproved of by Cecil and Sir Walter Raleigh who looms in and out of the action.
Instead of trouncing Tyrone, Essex arranges a dodgy truce. He bursts into the queen’s dressing room to give her the news and make his excuses.
The queen is dressing and orders his arrest for disregarding her explicit orders. Essex escapes and tries to raise an army against the queen, under the pretext of rescuing her from bad advisers – Cecil and Raleigh. He is captured and condemned. Cecil, who knows his monarch is romantically attached, believes the queen will pardon Essex.
When Penelope, Lady Essex, and Mountjoy all support the pardon, this only serves to stiffen the queen’s resolve, and she signs her former favourite’s death warrant. The drama ends, as did Elizabeth II’s life, with the dilemma of duty overwhelming personal priorities. Elizabeth I comes to face her own mortality as our late monarch bravely confronted hers. In harness, swearing in a succession of Tory Prime Ministers, until her reign quietly closed in beloved Balmoral.
Mezzo soprano, Christine Rice, gave the performance of her career as Elizabeth. She has had a star-studded European career since being a BBC Radio 3 New Generation artist between 2004-2006. Her empathetic acting was as convincing as her voice and as her life faded in the final scene, she commanded a stillness in the packed theatre that was physical.
The parts of the Recorder of Norwich and A Blind Beggar Singer were taken on by well-loved Jamaican bass baritone Sir Willard White, whose onstage presence lent huge authority to the roles.
Turbulent Essex was tenor, Robert Murray. Perhaps benefiting from being born in Essex, he conveyed the complexities and strong-headed petulance of the doomed courtier perfectly.
Irish mezzo soprano Paula Murrihy, in international demand across Europe and in the USA, took on the thankless task of portraying Lady Essex. Scottish baritone, Duncan Rock was Mountjoy. I last heard Rock singing Pallante in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Handel’s Agrippina.
Soprano, Eleanor Dennis, a former ENO Harewood – how fitting – Artist, sang Lady Rich. She is an up-and-coming star and was in no way overwhelmed by the experience of her fellow cast members.
In a quiet interval moment, I asked Michelle Williams, ENO’s head of casting what was on her mind when shaping a cast for the likes of Gloriana. She has a clear objective of attracting star names to sing alongside up and coming artists, helping them launch to a wider stage.
This is an integral part of ENO’s mission, and yet another reason why the emasculation threatened by defunding would leave a black hole at the centre of English opera.
Conductor, Martyn Brabbins, brought the score to life in a manner which should settle the argument about the status of Britten’s Gloriana in the repertoire. It stands up there alongside Peter Grimes and Billy Budd when the musicality is given the sympathetic attention provided by Brabbins.
A special shout out to ENO Director Ruth Knight. Hers was a brilliant development of the usually immobile concert opera form. That hybrid of a static chorus and well-lit, costumed principals singing scoreless and performing, essentially, as a conventional opera cast was highly compelling.
Lights dimmed, as, alone on stage, Elizabeth I’s life faded to its end, duty done. I bet the audience in the Coliseum left with Balmoral on its mind. What better tribute could ENO have given the late Elizabeth II than that?
And another thing!
For a week or so, New York’s Metropolitan Opera had no website. Down. Denial of service.
As of 15th December – it’s back! With an enigmatic statement that raises more questions than it answers.
“After suffering a cyberattack that temporarily impacted our network systems, we’re pleased to announce that the Met is now able to process ticket orders through our website and in person at our box office. Based upon our ongoing investigations into the recent cyberattack, we would like to reassure our customers that ticketing customer data, including credit card information used when purchasing tickets, has not been stolen. We do not keep credit card information in the systems that were affected by the cyberattack. Thank you for your patience.”
There was much speculation in the New York press and around clubland coffee tables that the Met’s overt pro-Ukraine stance had provoked a Russian hack attack. The banning of allegedly pro-Putin soprano Anna Netrebko was cited.
The Met has levelled no accusations, which smacks of the shutdown being a ransom attack. I’m in and around the Lincoln Center this weekend for two performances and shall furnish scuttlebutt as acquired.
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