No weak link in the cast as ENO comes together as a company for Britten’s Gloriana

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Gloriana: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera / Martyn Brabbins (conductor). London Coliseum, 8.12.2022. (MB)

Earl of Essex (Robert Murray), Countess of Essex (Paula Murrihy), Charles Blount (Duncan Rock) and Lady Rich (Eleanor Dennis) © Nirah Sanghani

Director – Ruth Knight
Costumes – Sarah Bowern
Wigs, Hair, Make-up – Corinne Young
Lighting – Ian Jackson-French
Video – Barbora Šenoltová
Chorus director – Mark Biggins

Queen Elizabeth I – Christine Rice
Robert Devereuz, Earl of Essex – Robert Murray
Frances, Countess of Essex – Paula Murrihy
Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy – Duncan Rock
Penelope, Lady Rich – Eleanor Dennis
Sir Robert Cecil – Charles Rice
Sir Walter Raleigh – David Soar
Henry Cuffe – Alex Otterburn
A Lady-in-Waiting – Alexandra Oomens
The Recorder of Norwich, A Ballad Singer – Willard White
A Housewife – Claire Barnett-Jones
The Spirit of the Masque – Innocent Masuku

Britten’s Gloriana is a strange work, both in itself and considered as a ‘coronation opera’. It is no Clemenza di Tito, idealising, instructing, and even gently warning a king, at least in Mozart’s version, that affairs of state must always have precedence over those of his own heart. Or is it, even if not by intent? The first Queen Elizabeth, as presented here by Britten and William Plomer, after Lytton Strachey, does not exactly prosper by indulging her favourite, the Earl of Essex. It is not, however, difficult to understand why many thought the presentation of an ageing monarch inappropriate as a way to greet the new reign of Gloriana’s twentieth-century successor. In many ways, The Crown has nothing on this — save for superior dramaturgy. If the strangeness of Gloriana’s (verbal) archaisms can be explained, perhaps even understood, the awkwardness of its first act in particular surely would have merited revision, had opportunity presented itself. Plomer certainly did Britten no favours.

Similar things may be said, though, of many operas. We have what we have, and English National Opera did it proud, in just the sort of performance the company and its supporters alike needed to hear. Electrified by the moment of the Arts Council’s latest disgraceful philistinism — scrapping its grant altogether and bundling it off to Manchester, without so much as a word of consultation with venues, existing companies, or local government — this felt like a true coming together, to bless a problematical work more completely than may have been the case upon its first outing and, in my opinion, when revived at Covent Garden in 2013, sixty years after its premiere. Martyn Brabbins and the ENO Orchestra proved at least the equals of Paul Daniel and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. If anything, I think they may have been more incisive, still more committed. There was certainly a strong sense of grounding in Britten’s music; one could draw many a comparison with other of the composer’s dramatic music, dating back past Billy Budd and The Rape of Lucretia at least as far as Peter Grimes, yet sometimes also peering into the future. There is not a huge amount that can be done about some of the duller passages, and a masque without dancing is not ideal, but there remained enough at least to intrigue. Ruth Knight’s direction and the ‘concert staging’ in general were obviously limited in what they could achieve, yet as a framework for something considerably more than a concert performance worked well: perhaps something of a model for further revivals, should ENO fare better than Essex in escaping the executioner’s axe.

Paula Murrihy (Countess of Essex) and Christine Rice (Elizabeth I) © Nirah Sanghani

There was much to enjoy and admire in the singing. In the title role, Christine Rice offered imperious and internally conflicted as very much two sides to the same Elizabethan coin. Robert Murray’s Essex seemed particularly at home with the particular blend of verbal and musical line required here, not least in the lute songs with which he would seduce his queen. Paula Murrihy proved an affecting Frances, doubtless in part a reflection of the more interesting standpoint of her role, although it remains necessary for an artist to grasp that opportunity — here accomplished in captivating fashion. Duncan Rock, a memorable Don Giovanni, presented a splendidly rutting Mountjoy; if the role fizzles out somewhat, there is very little that can be done about that. Eleanor Dennis’s Penelope complemented him and the other intriguers nicely.

There was no weak link in the cast, and crucially a strong sense, even in this single performance, of a company coming together as more than the sum of its parts. Two ENO Harewood Artists (Alexandra Oomens and Innocent Masuku) shone, a nice symmetry since Lord Harewood, the second Elizabeth’s cousin, according to some accounts cajoled her into accepting the dedication — and had her and Prince Philip attend a prior dinner-party run-through, at which the royal couple may not have been entirely amused. So too did two former Harewood Artists: Alex Otterburn and the wonderfully spirited Claire Barnett-Jones as a housewife in the penultimate scene. Will someone with power and influence take note? Who knows? Someone certainly should — and fast, before ENO’s death warrant is executed.

Mark Berry

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