United Kingdom Britten, Gloriana: Soloists, Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Paul Daniel (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 20.6.2013 (MB)
Elizabeth I – Susan Bullock
Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex – Toby Spence
Frances Devereux, Countess of Essex – Patricia Bardon
Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy – Mark Stone
Penelope, Lady Rich – Kate Royal
Sir Robert Cecil – Jeremy Carpenter
Sir Walter Raleigh – Clive Bayley
Henry Cuffe – Benjamin Bevan
Lady-in-Waiting – Nadine Livingston
Blind Ballad Singer – Brindley Sherratt
Recorder of Norwich – Jeremy White
Housewife – Carol Rowlands
Spirit of the Masque – Andrew Tortise
Master of Ceremonies – David Butt Philip
City Crier – Michel de Souza
Concord – Giulia Pazzaglia
Time – Lake Laoutaris-Smith
Richard Jones (director)
Mimi Jordan Sherin (lighting)
Lucy Burge (choreography)
The Royal Opera offered a strong performance and production, for the most part as excellent as we have any right to expect, of what remains, alas, a very weak opera. Aldeburgh fundamentalists, a highly vocal sect that is yet diminishing with age, will maintain that Gloriana’s dreadful initial reception was to be attributed to a philistine audience of coronation dignitaries and the merely prejudiced. (Richard Jarman, General Director of the Britten-Pears Foundation, writes in the programme of a composer ‘whose musical conservatism was attacked by the avant garde in his lifetime but whose reputation has outlived his critics.’ Well, he would, wouldn’t he?) The way some speak of the debacle, one would think that a masterpiece of the order of Birtwistle’s Mask of Orpheus had been slighted. It is certainly difficult to begrudge the opportunity to find out for ourselves, in what is the first time since the brief 1954 revival that the Royal Opera has staged the work, but the flip side of that opportunity proves to be realisation that many of the criticisms levelled at the work in 1953 were justified after all.
Though not really a criticism of the work as such, it is extraordinary to think that anyone could have thought this an appropriate subject for dedication and tribute to a new queen. It would surely have been far better left to stand on its own feet, appearing a few years later, after the composer had had more time to work on it. La clemenza di Tito, far and awaythe greatest of all coronation operas, may have been written in breakneck time, even by Mozart’s standards, but, wonderful conductor of Mozart though Britten was, he certainly lacked Mozart’s combination of greatness and incredible facility. The opera is certainly not helped by William Plomer’s dreadful libretto, laden down by unconvincing archaisms and cringeworthy rhymes of which ‘duty’ and ‘beauty’ is far from the worst offender; nor is it assisted by all too formulaic scene-by-scene alternation between ‘public’ and ‘private’ realms, which encourages a dramaturgy that barely advances, if indeed it does at all, beyond Verdi. (Half-hearted applause greeted the end of each scene, whilst Richard Jones’s metatheatrical production, about which more below, did its heroic to make the scene-changes of interest.) Schiller or Boris Godunov this conflict decidedly is not. Apart from Elizabeth I herself, and perhaps the Earl of Essex, characters, such as they are, tend to be products of plot situations rather than vice versa.
Yet even the manifold dramatic weaknesses do not excuse the weakness of so much of the score itself. Even the mild syncopations of the opening chorus sound shop-soiled -as if drawn from a Britten manual of how to add a little ‘modernity’ without frightening away the horses. Large sections of the orchestral writing seem little more than padding. At their best, there is a kinship in vocal lines to Purcell; much of the time, however, they veer between the merely nondescript and the inappropriately Italianate (as in nineteenth-century Italianate – certainly nothing contemporary). And if Norwich might not always be accepted as a heaving metropolis, does it really deserve the tedium of the ‘masque’? (I could not help but think of those dreadful shows the present Queen and Duke of Edinburgh must sit through when on an official visit, doubtless longing to be taken as quickly as possible to Balmoral or Newmarket.) Dramaturgically, there are signs of hope there: at least Britten is doing something different. Rarely, however, does his formulaic music rise to the occasion; it is actually more interesting when it alludes most strongly to Tudor styles, though the ‘real thing’ would be more interesting still. Matters were not helped by having the first and second acts run together without an interval; it made for a very long time, scene changes included, sitting through pretty insubstantial stuff.
That said, there could be no gainsaying the commitment of the Royal Opera’s forces to presentation of the work. If there were times when Paul Daniel might have sped things up a bit, one did not need to know that he had conducted the score before, for Opera North, to hear that he was fully in command of it. Likewise, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and the Royal Opera Chorus, as ever excellently prepared by Renato Balsadonna, responded with enthusiasm and sensitivity that lay almost beyond the call of duty, regal or otherwise. Casting was of great strength, the only real problem being Susan Bullock’s vocal fallibility in the title role; without too much effort, though, one could accept that as reflecting the fallibility of an ageing monarch. Otherwise, Toby Spence proved as fine an advocate as the Earl of Essex could ever expect: ardent, sensitive, headstrong as required. Mark Stone offered a finely-sung, equally finely-acted, darker-hued foil as Lord Mountjoy. It was an especial joy to hear Patricia Bardon’s true contralto, plaintive and full of tone, as the Countess of Essex, with Kate Royal’s Penelope equally well sung, if less clear of diction. (The weird outburst in the final scene, quite unmotivated by what little character development has previously been offered, is certainly not her fault.) Smaller roles such as Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Bayley), Sir Robert Cecil (Jeremy Carpenter), and Carol Rowlands’s splendidly shrewish London Housewife offered ample opportunity for care with words and music, however undeserving. Likewise, Brindley Sherratt made the most of the tediously repetitive part for the Blind Ballad-Singer; again, comparisons with a superficially similar role in Boris Godunov are unfortunate, to say the least.
Richard Jones pursued his task as director with palpable relish. The production offers a metatheatrical view of staging a 1953 celebration, framed by a small procession of dignitaries. The idea might have been pushed further; as it stood, it did not really do a great deal other than remind us when the work was written. Perhaps that might have been more than the work could have taken, though Christopher Alden’s superb Midsummer Night’s Dream for ENO suggests bravery in staging may be the way forward for Britten’s slighter operas. Designs by Ultz – just ‘Ultz’, presumably like ‘Jesus’, or ‘Voltaire’, his ‘mystery’ enhanced by the lack of a programme photograph – were handsome, colourful, even witty. If we must have the 1950s on stage all the time, this was a model of how to accomplish the task. Lucy Burge’s choreography and the work of various actors and dancers were equally estimable. I could have done without the cumbersome business of each scene being introduced by a gang of children holding up letters to spell, ‘Nonesuch Palace’, ‘The City’, and so on, but apparently some members of the audience found that side-splittingly hilarious.
It is meet and right that opera houses should grant the possibility to reassess works and indeed composers, lest unfair historical verdicts go uncontested. The production earlier this season of Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable is a case in point. Yet I suspect that the uninformed vitriol poured upon a flawed yet intriguing grand opéra will be matched this time around by calls of ‘disgracefully neglected masterpiece’. We should all like to find another operatic masterpiece, but wishing does not make it so; for that, we should do better to turn our attention to the future, not least to the new work Covent Garden has commissioned from George Benjamin and Martin Crimp. Works as different as The Minotaur and Written on Skin, masterpieces both, suggest ways forward; yet it does us no harm occasionally to reflect that creation of masterpieces may not only alleviate but also be facilitated by the possibility of failure elsewhere.