“Clap, damn you, clap”! Benjamin Britten, enraged, leaned out of his box at Covent Garden and railed at the lukewarm audience response to curtain-down at the premiere of his seventh opera, Gloriana. Sparse applause rippled round the house. Bummer!

That was in 1953. The work has been performed rarely since. The Royal Opera House launched a revival in 2013 and streamed it as live, free to air, on Saturday 25th March.

In post-war London it was not a promising audience for a cutting-edge composer that spilled from its limos in Covent Garden that premiere evening. There is a nostalgic Pathé News report of the glitzy arrivals, the society tiara crowd. Those who enjoy the new Covid lockdown pastime, “Spot the Commoner,” should watch Pathé’s “Royal Opera Night” coverage here. It is not for squeamish egalitarians.

Blinded by the bling, the only untitled punters are Clement Attlee, Robert Menzies, Louis San Laurent and Pandit Nehru. They are mere Commonwealth prime ministers. Tough crowd. They were about to be confronted by Elizabeth I onstage, not in all her Armada pomp, but, hairless, in her declining years, troubled by warring court factions and driven to fury by her favourite, The Earl of Essex.

This was no sycophantic pageant to greet the new-crowned monarch. “Did Mr Britten and his librettist show Queen Elizabeth Ist as an unlovely, self-willed, vacillating old woman … the decadent crone of a queen?”, Daily Express; “Did Mr Britten not quite command the full-blooded vigour of the age he set out to depict”, The Daily Telegraph. There was muttering in the land that this was an insult to the young queen.

Nothing of the sort. Her Majesty was fully aware of the character and sharp purpose of the opera. She and Prince Philip had dined with Britten and discussed it in detail. With the benefit of nearly 70 years of hindsight she can be judged to have been shrewd in approving a work which portrayed the role of monarch in the crystalline clarity of troubles that were surely to come.

She sought no sycophantic oeuvre, adulatory comparison with her fabled ancestor. The opera never dodges the truth that a crown can be hard to wear. This is statecraft, warts and all. The young Elizabeth, wise beyond her years, understood the burden of her duty, even in those early, heady days. Nearly 70 years on we are all the beneficiaries of that shrewd insight.

Gloriana was commissioned as part of a pageant of celebrations to celebrate the coronation.  The read across from the glorious epoch of Elizabeth I to the dawning of another Elizabethan era was perhaps an easy hit, but too good to resist.

Britain was still clad in post-war dun. Rationing was in force. Riff off the queen who singed the king of Spain’s beard, Good Queen Bess. Time to cheer up. Let’s have an opera – and let it be written by Britain’s most celebrated composer, Benjamin Britten, already with the likes of Billy Budd, The Rape of Lucretia, Albert Herring and Peter Grimes successfully tucked under his belt.

Britten was on a roll. The controversy surrounding his failure to return home from America when war broke out in 1939, instead remaining – on the advice of the British Ambassador in Washington, it should be recalled – in the USA as an artistic ambassador along with his partner, tenor Peter Pears, was behind him. Registering as a conscientious objector on his return in April 1942 had not burnished the Britten image.

Yet in March 1952, barely a month after the death of George VI, the Gloriana project was mooted by the Earl of Harewood, the queen’s cousin, to Britten on a skiing holiday in Austria, then given the royal seal of approval in April. Britten’s seventh post-war opera was on the stocks. Gaining the royal seal of approval for an as yet unwritten opera was unprecedented, the cause of grumbling envy amongst Britten’s musical peers. And much budget wrestling between HM Treasury and the board of the Royal Opera House.

This would be the crowning achievement of Britten’s career. So, when the composer chose William Plomer, an author and poet acquaintance, to be his librettist, the sound of sucking, envious teeth was to be heard across the land. Plomer was part of the trendy Leonard and Virginia Woolf set, how he first came to Britten’s attention. It is unlikely that Plomer’s best known work, an edited diary of Victorian clergyman, Francis Kilvert, had even crossed the threshold of Britten’s consciousness.

Plomer had never written a libretto before. Why pick him? The Woolf connection? Perhaps. It is not clear. But, I suspect he was chosen because Britten preferred to control both score and libretto. Easier to shape the work of a neophyte librettist than some experienced, but strongly opinionated, cuss of a libretto warrior.

The pair had originally collaborated on some Britten ideas in 1951. Probably best for their reputations, and the peace of the realm, that a children’s opera based on Beatrix Potter’s, The Tale of Mr Tod, and a space odyssey, Tyco the Vegan, were both abandoned.

Quaintly, Plomer disliked the telephone, so much of the pell-mell work of writing the libretto was conducted by letter. Britten had to compose sporadically, to the relentless beat of a packed diary, and the well documented correspondence between the two shines an unprecedent light on the composition process. It was intense, often chaotic.

Some of Plomer’s metre ran awkwardly when set to music and Britten would simply alter it without consultation. Plomer rarely objected. At times Britten’s score ran ahead of the libretto he was being fed. Very cart before horse. It is amazing their collaboration remained on an amicable and constructive footing. But it explains why chunks of the libretto are clunky.

Neophyte he may have been, but Plomer crafted sufficient resonating phrases to make the work memorable, the offstage theme, “Green Leaves are We”, being the opera’s earworm.

One unforeseen obstacle was raised late in the day by The Lord Chamberlain. In Act III, scene II a housewife was to empty a chamber pot over one of the rebellious characters, Cuff, and his mob from an upstairs window. The Lord Chamberlain quixotically took issue with the vessel, not its contents. A basin was called for.

Was the chamber-pot lèse-majesté? The Lord Chamberlain’s office wrote to Plomer; “There just happens to be a rule of long standing, and The Lord Chancellor has had to set his face against chamber-pots.” No po-faced bureaucrat, he. Britten recounted the episode to the Queen and Prince Philip at a later dinner, to much hilarity.

Musically, Gloriana did not set many pulses racing. It lacks the long passages of atmospheric beauty, such as the Sea Interlude in Peter Grimes, that distinguish so many of Britten’s scores. Much of the mimicking of Elizabethan lute rhythms comes off clunkily. That’s why the opera gathered dust after its premiere. Yet it has moments of devastating power, especially in the final scene, when Gloriana is revealed in an unforgiving spotlight as declining harridan.

Richard Jones’s 2013 production of Gloriana for the ROH is a substantial rewrite, not just an innovative production. He has created a post-war mythology of Merrie England, exactly the impression Britten had been trying to avoid, so immediately he sets himself at odds with the opera’s purpose. Soprano, Susan Bullock, sings Elizabeth. She is never allowed by the director to fully explore her ambiguous relationship with Essex, leaving a gaping hole in the plot.

I shall refer to episodes in the performance, but, for the sake of brevity, take the history as mostly known. Jones dumps the royal court for a village hall, in which the inhabitants of Ambridge seem to have come together to present a pageant, bizarrely presided over by the freshly crowned Queen Elizabeth and her processing entourage, who have dropped in to watch.

Jones turns the whole thing into an unamusing episode of Dad’s Army. A Union Jack fronts the proscenium; khaki clad soldiers change the sets; school-marmy matrons conduct offstage with pencils; gruesome, Just William prep-school boys hold up placards explaining the action – why? Everyone’s old auntie seems to have donated the joke costumes.

The opera opens with a procession of Elizabeth I’s successors, starting with George VI, their royal houses proclaimed by the lads with the placards. Presumably Jones thought Elizabeth II needed a bit of history coaching. It’s bit of a boo-boo that as we get to James I/VI he’s flagged up as “Tudor”. But, hats off for spelling “Saxe-Coburg-Gotha” without a glitch.

The set designer is Ultz, a celebrity-designer who carelessly lost his first name in a fashionista fracas at a Mayfair gallery opening. Ultz does garish, along the lines of comic book heraldry. That might work, except it occasionally descends to infantile. The opening tournament scene is portrayed by deploying fairground roundabout horses’ heads bobbing up and down behind a wall. Risible.

At one dramatic crescendo, when the Queen steals and appears in Penelope, Lady Rich’s, stunning dress because she is trying to bring Essex’s pushy sister down a peg, the serious purpose of the insult is undermined by the absurdity of the confectionary-yellow gingham horror. Likely, it would have led a lonely life at the back of the village charity shop. This outfit, meant to discombobulate a monarch, would upstage nobody.

I re-watched the Phyllida Lloyd directed Opera North production of 1994. It is in a different class. This production, shorn of village idiot distractions, focuses on the character conflicts that give the opera whatever weight it carries. Josephine Barstow is an unforgettable Elizabeth.

Then, I came across footage of the original 1953 production, seen here.

Clanking armour and strangling ruffs of her court aside, this scary Joan Cross portrayal of Elizabeth underpins Britten’s serious purpose. Well worth a nostalgic look. Gloriana may be acknowledged as Britten’s problem opera, but it makes no sense to make the problems worse. Which is exactly the trap Richard Jones has fallen into.

There is a structural problem with Gloriana. 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, 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. 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.

A bright spot of this production. At the finale, with Good Queen Bess cruelly illuminated in her tormented decline, Jones has the royal party process across stage from the village hall. Elizabeth II pauses, contemplating Elizabeth I. Lights out. This momentary scene of a young monarch confronting her future in the personage of the haggish Gloriana is heart-stopping.