Listening to Britten – Gloriana, Op.53


Final March (Act I, Scene 1) – Gloriana (detail) by Jane Mackay, her personal response to the music. Used with many thanks to the artist, whose work can be viewed on her own website Sounding Art

Gloriana – Opera in three acts, Op.53 (September 1952 – 13 March 1953, Britten aged 39)

Dedication Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, in honour of whose Coronation it was composed
Text William Plomer, after ‘Elizabeth and Essex’ by Lytton Strachey
Language English
Duration 145′

Audio and Video clips

The brief trailer for the 2013 production from the Royal Opera House.

Below are selected clips from the recording made by Sir Charles Mackerras for Decca. Josephine Barstow plays Queen Elizabeth I, Philip Langridge the Earl of Essex, Della Jones is Lady Essex and Alan Opie plays Cecil, with the Chorus and Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera. With thanks to Decca.

Act 1
Prelude (orchestra)

The Tornament (ensemble)

Entrance of the Queen (Elizabeth)

Raleigh’s Song

The Queen’s Song (Elizabeth)

First Lute Song (Elizabeth and Essex)

Second Lute Song (Elizabeth and Essex)

The First Duet for the Queen & Essex (Elizabeth and Essex)

Act 2
Prelude & Welcome (ensemble)

The Masque (ensemble)

Scene 1, Finale (ensemble)

Prelude & Song (Lady Rich and Charles Blount)

Pavane (orchestra)

Lavolta (orchestra)

The Queen’s Burlesque (Elizabeth and Lady Essex)

Quartet (ensemble)

Coranto (orchestra)

Act 3
The Second Duet of the Queen & Essex (Elizabeth and Essex)

The Queen’s Decision (Elizabeth)

Ballad – Rondo (ensemble)

Prelude & Verdict (ensemble)

Cecil’s Warning (Elizabeth and Cecil)

Lady Essex’s Pleading (ensemble)

Penelope Rich’s Pleading (Lady Rich and Elizabeth)

Epilogue (ensemble)

Background, Plot and Critical Reception

In the last fifteen years or so the life of Queen Elizabeth I has held a keen fascination for TV and film directors, with the monarch played by Dame Helen Mirren and Cate Blanchett, not to mention Glenda Jackson’s unforgettable portrayal in 1971. Would the reputation of Britten’s opera Gloriana have been better had it been revealed in the context of these big screen blockbusters?

It could hardly be worse than when it was unveiled in 1953. The initial signs were promising. On a skiing holiday in 1952, Britten and friends pondered a gap in the history of English culture, namely the lack of an opera capturing the national spirit in the way Smetana’s The Bartered Bride did for Czechoslovakia, or Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov did for Russia. He was challenged there and then to consider writing one, and after some thought approached the soon to be Queen Elizabeth I by way of her nephew, Earl Harewood. The idea met with her approval, and so in this roundabout way Britten became a royal composer ahead of more obvious (some would say deserving!) candidates such as Sir William Walton. What a transformation for someone who had to register as a conscientious objector just eleven years previously.

Rather than write an outright work of celebration, however, Britten decided to focus on the incoming Queen’s namesake and predecessor Elizabeth I, whose popular name in the sixteenth century was Gloriana. For this he collaborated with William Plomer, the two choosing Elizabeth and Essex by Lytton Strachey as the inspiration for their story and text. Once again Britten was not afraid of choosing a librettist who had no previous operatic experience, but his resulting collaboration with Plomer was a convivial and largely rewarding one. In Gloriana they were working with Britten’s biggest operatic role for a female, bigger even than Lucretia, though lacking that level of tragedy.

The plot moves between the public and private faces of the Queen, focusing more specifically on Elizabeth’s wrangling with her feelings for the Earl of Essex, who forces her hand with catastrophic results when he rushes back from an armed mission in Ireland, disturbing the Queen in her bedroom. For this treasonous act he is sentenced to execution. A good starting point for the background to the opera is this Essentials package for the Royal Opera House production in June 2013.

Michael Oliver details how the publication of Benjamin Britten: a commentary on his works from a group of specialists, released just as Britten began composition of Gloriana in 1952, had already caused inappropriate murmurings. This was a book essentially produced by colleagues of the composer to recognise his by now considerable stature, but was interpreted by those at a distance to be a form of promotion. Further to that, the premiere audience was, Oliver says, ‘hardly an ideal premiere for an opera which concerned itself less with the glories of the Elizabethan age than with the conflicts and sorrows that were their background. The opera was described as an insult to the Queen and a slight on the reputation of her predecessor’.

‘It is hard to avoid’, he says, ‘the impression that the viciousness of the attacks was prompted by resentment at Britten’s apparently favoured status. The words of Essex and Mountjoy, rivals in the opera for Elizabeth’s favour, perhaps tempted providence:

I curse him for his impudence

And some day I will hurl him down.

Oliver notes how Britten takes ‘a literal quotation of a phrase from a madrigal by Elizabeth’s contemporary John Wilbye back in time to an austerely harmonized chant-like theme (the Queen’s prayer) and forward to Purcell. Yet all are stylizations rather than pastiches, sometimes so far from their originals (the mere hints of a madrigalian manner in the choral dances of the Act 2 masque) as to constitute an almost entirely imaginary ‘non-Elizabethan’ music, at others purposefully distorting the originals (the sequence of courtly dances) to dramatic effect’.

Oliver’s insight extends to the closing pages of Gloriana. ‘That the opera ends not with a great aria or ensemble but with speech has also been the subject of dissatisfaction, and the fact that Britten revised this final scene more than once suggests that he had his own doubts about it. Or, perhaps, was determined to perfect its balance between speech, orchestral gesture, the three phrases (only) in which Elizabeth rises from speech to song, and the concluding off-stage choral reprise of ‘Green leaves are we’. The soprano who has just sung Britten’s most demanding female role must now demonstrate herself to be a powerful speaking actress as well, but when finely cast and staged this nightmarish resume of Elizabeth’s life after the fall of Essex and her approach to death can be intensely moving.

Despite the failure of its premiere, Gloriana enjoyed a much healthier public reception. John Bridcut notes that ‘cooler assessment today reveals a work well tailored to the occasion (as always with Britten), containing as it does moments of genuine splendour and national rejoicing. But it also explores the conflict between a Queen’s, public duty and private emotions, and in this was remarkably modern – which is presumably what made the begloved and bemedalled audience on the first night so uncomfortable (if they were still awake).

Claire Seymour, writing in her new book The Operas of Benjamin Britten: Expression and Evasion, looks at the effect writing Gloriana had on its composer. ‘The unease and imbalance which distinguish Gloriana, together with the opera’s controversial performance history, confirm the complexity of the challenge Britten had set himself, i.e. to reconcile his public responsibilities and ambitions with his need for private fulfilment. In this way, it might be suggested that Britten’s experience of composing this Coronation opera was a partial re-enactment of the tragic experience of Gloriana herself.’

Thoughts

It is surely true that the greatest composers write what they feel in spite of rather than because of their audience. Britten could have come up with what the premiere audience wanted, a patriotic work gazing on the Queen’s wonder, but what he and Plomer actually completed was something rather more questionable and far more controversial in their eyes – but a work that was ultimately more substantial than a mere tribute piece.

For Gloriana retains many aspects of a ‘typical’ Britten opera, as we have come to know them. There is much more to it than meets the eye or ear, with the splendour and pageantry often used to mask intense personal feelings underneath the surface. The Queen is rather tragically restricted in what she is allowed to show; Essex is equally tragic in his thirst for power that ultimately proves his undoing.

Whereas some might find Britten’s incorporation of Elizabethan music to be twee and loaded with pastiche, I actually found its musical language unique and strangely refreshing. That may be more so coming after the unremitting but remarkable weight of Billy Budd, but I found the invention to be fresh. The idea of a national opera is certainly enhanced by the elements of Dowland and Purcell that remain in Britten’s musical language, and the ceremonial music, when the full orchestra are used, echoes that found in Jupiter from Holst’s The Planets, and even occasionally draws up alongside Elgar.

The lute songs are perhaps the height of Britten’s ‘neo-Elizabethan’ writing. They offer a very unusual sound world for 1950s opera, and it is certain these played a big part in the coolness of the reception afforded to Gloriana. It is also likely the audience were put off by the extended melisma in some of Britten’s writing, and in a lengthy section like the Masque that would almost certainly have affected the perception of the opera by people coming at it ‘from cold’, as many of the audience were.

And then there is the libretto, difficult to muster in today’s language. On watching a staging it is difficult to completely remove thoughts of Blackadder at times, but the musical substance helps overcome a good number of those obstacles, with Britten’s harlequin writing bringing a good deal of the original Tudor language forward but never really giving it full ownership of the opera, for at dramatic high points his own style always forces itself to the front.

Despite the subject matter there is almost always a sense of ceremony throughout, from the very first brass fanfares, which become more flowery as the queen herself arrives. Britten uses the orchestra in a very different way to Billy Budd, with a much brighter tone to a lot of his writing, though the brass are once again the most important factor. Indeed, after a while the richness of colour can be too much, like eating a few too many chocolates. And yet on occasion it is also possible to hear the Britten of the late 1930s. The wide open scoring of the initial fanfare indicates the influence of Copland remains, while the percussion can on occasion point towards Bernstein.

There is room for humour, too. The orchestral Lavolta is a riot, with the initially polite Tudor music overcome by brazen glissandi from the brass. Meanwhile in Raleigh’s Song the line “‘buzz’ quoth the blue fly, ‘hum’ quoth the bee” meeting with a brilliant representation of the insects from the brass in Raleigh’s Song. There are subtleties, also, such as the spidery fugue on the strings that is the prelude for Act 1 Scene 2.

At dramatic high points Britten’s skill with both the orchestra and his incorporation of other styles comes through.
His choral writing is extremely strong at The Ensemble of Reconciliation, while the Prelude to Act 2 glints with a steely magnificence. The Coranto contains a remarkable transition, its Tudor beginnings swallowed up, a kind of Jonah against the whale that is the orchestra.

Yet perhaps no dramatic moment is keener than The Second Duet of the Queen & Essex, just after his intrusion into her bedroom. His declaration that she is ‘the hero of my life’ is an incredibly powerful moment. Elizabeth has to order the execution of Essex, which at first feels very different to the death of Billy Budd – but is it really that different? Both executors (Captain Vere and Elizabeth) are doing something against their will, experiencing an almost violent conflict of emotions while they do so.

Gloriana seems destined to remain a conundrum among Britten’s stage works. But it contains music far finer than its reputation suggests, and manages somehow to mark a Coronation whilst still expressing its composer’s poignant emotions. It is reported that Queen Elizabeth II enjoyed the work, when given a private performance prior to the premiere. In 2012 the royal barge was also named Gloriana for the Diamond Jubilee Thames Pageant. Coincidence, I wonder?

Recordings used

DVD

Susan Bullock (Queen Elizabeth I), Toby Spence (Earl of Essex), Patricia Bardon (Countess of Essex), Mark Stone (Lord Mountjoy), Kate Royal (Lady Rich), Jeremy Carpenter (Sir Robert Cecil), Clive Bayley (Sir Walter Raleigh) & Brindley Sherratt (Ballad Singer), Royal Opera House Chorus and Orchestra / Paul Daniel

A film recorded live at the Royal Opera House in June 2013.

Sarah Walker (Queen Elizabeth I), Anthony Rolfe Johnson (Essex), Jean Rigby (Lady Essex), Richard Van Allan (Raleigh), Elizabeth Vaughn (Lady Penelope Rich), Alan Opie (Cecil), Neil Howlett (Mountjoy), Malcolm Donnelly (Henry Cuffe), Lynda Russell (Lady in Waiting), Norman Bailey (Ballad Singer), Chorus and Orchestra of the English National Opera / Mark Elder (Arthaus)

A film of the 1984 ENO production, live from the Coliseum.

CD

Josephine Barstow (Queen Elizabeth I), Philip Langridge (Essex), Della Jones (Lady Essex), Jonathan Summers (Charles Blount), Alan Opie (Cecil), Yvonne Kenny (Lady Rich), Bryn Terfel (Henry Cuffe), Richard van Allan (Walter Raleigh), Chorus and Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera / Sir Charles Mackerras (Decca)

Gloriana has suffered as much in the recording studio as it has in the opera house. Britten himself did not record the opera, for after its opening run it was not heard again for a decade. Thus he recorded only the Orchestral Suite and the Courtly Dances. Decca themselves did not commission a recording of the opera until Sir Charles Mackerras stepped up in 1992.

Given that Mackerras was ‘cast out’ of the Britten circle it must have been a peculiar honour for him, but it is a very colourful recording, the brightness of the ensemble judged to perfection and the details of Britten’s Tudor appropriations fully exposed. He is helped by the impressive Josephine Varstow, a fulsome but approachable queen, and a very strong ensemble of male soloists headed by Philip Langridge as Essex.

In the Royal Opera House version Susan Bullock is very sharp of tone as the monarch, perhaps reflecting her more recent portrayals on the screen. She has a wide vibrato that can at times be grating, but it could be argued that this is a very accurate representation of Elizabeth herself. By contrast Josephine Barstow is brighter. Toby Spence is superb as Essex.

Spotify

Mackerras’s recording remains the only available version of Gloriana, and can be heard by clicking here. The Symphonic Suite and Courtly Dances are the common excerpts taken from the opera, and they will have a separate entry and playlist, as Britten published these as Op.53a.

In addition a roll of photos from the original production of Gloriana can be viewed on the Royal Opera House website.

Also written in 1951: Vaughan Williams – Symphony no.7 (Sinfonia antartica)

Next up: Winter Words, Op.52

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3 Responses to Listening to Britten – Gloriana, Op.53

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Cantata misericordium, Op.69 | Good Morning Britten

  2. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Curlew River, Op.71 | Good Morning Britten

  3. Pingback: Listening to Britten – The National Anthem | Good Morning Britten

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