Photo of Christine Rice as Elizabeth I by Nirah Sanghani
Thursday, December 8, 2022
The Coliseum, London
Guest Reviewer, Curtis Rogers
This one-off, semi-staged performance of Gloriana was originally planned to serve as a tribute to Elizabeth II in her Platinum Jubilee year. With her passing away in the meantime this presentation became a somewhat more apt memorial, perhaps, as the work features her Tudor namesake at the end of her long life, confronting the decline from old age, the continuing challenges to the exercise of power, as well as a celebration of past achievements and the esteem in which the English people generally held her.
The opera is something of an occasional work – written for the late Queen’s coronation in 1953, partly at the suggestion of her cousin, the Earl of Harewood, later on the managing director of ENO – as it really comprises a series of tableaux revolving around Elizabeth’s complex, illicit love for Essex, rather than a rigorously dramatic narrative involving development and dissection of character so much. It has not entirely lived down its famously cool reception at its premiere. But as commentators have noted, it is not entirely surprising if a fairly philistine audience of courtiers, diplomats and heads of state showed little appreciation for a new composition by one of the foremost composers in England at that time. And indeed, the courts of few English monarchs have been as cultivated as that which surrounded Elizabeth I, when aristocrats were expected to be accomplished practitioners of the arts, like Essex himself who wrote poetry (this was the age in which Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier was the point of cultural reference rather than Hollywood or Netflix).
In any case, if this (at times) unflattering artistic representation of the late Queen’s predecessor on the throne didn’t aim at anything quite so glib or direct as ‘speaking truth to power’, Britten and Plomer surely remained faithful to the original purposes of the operatic art form as it emerged at the princely courts of Renaissance Italy, when mythological stories of thwarted or tragic love would remind those elite audiences (often at their wedding celebrations) of the fragility and travails of human life, rather than caress their vanities with comfortable stories. The composer and librettist themselves may reasonably have thought their scenario would receive a ready audience following the success of the 1939 film The Private Live of Elizabeth and Essex (with music by Korngold). And furthermore, professional jealousy of the still fairly young Britten also played its part in the critical opinion against him and the opera.
Ruth Knight’s slick semi-staging here revealed the genius of Britten’s work and the depth of human interactions at play within it, just as effectively as did Richard Jones’s full production for the Royal Opera House in 2013, and without imposing any directorial concept on it. Although the ENO Chorus – in black concert dress – did not engage with the dramatic action, and the omission of any choreography for the well-known sequence of ‘Choral Dances’ left the masque for the Queen’s progress to Norwich feeling rather depleted – this was otherwise a perfectly serviceable realisation.
There was plenty of spectacle with trumpeters in the wings for the fanfares, a lute player to accompany the Ballad Singer, and small instrumental ensembles for the ball scene of Act Two to the sides of the stage. Projected over or behind it were drawings of relevant objects evoking woodcut illustrations in books of the Elizabethan era. Costumes all accurately conjured that age too, and if the prevailing black dress of most of the principals (perhaps unintentionally) ironically suggested the preferred sombre appearance of the Spanish court at that time, from which Elizabeth faces a renewed threat of war, it does convey the foreboding atmosphere of the drama which climaxes in Essex’s execution. That dark attire also offsets well the sardonic confrontation between Elizabeth and Lady Essex when the latter’s gaudy dress is worn by the Queen to satirical effect as she sends up the Countess’s conceits.
Christine Rice gave a superbly committed performance as the Queen, calmly dispassionate as she appeared in state but showing deeper strains of emotion as she engaged with the private conflict between love for the impetuous Essex and duty to God and country – the latter fervently expressed in the prayer which closes Act One. If the drama itself permits little development of character in the dialogue, Robert Murray demonstrated compelling evolution in the role of Essex, from smooth-voiced eloquence as he displays envy of Mountjoy and ambition to be Lord Deputy of Ireland, to urgent frustration and desperation as he seeks to dislodge the aging Elizabeth from the throne and receives due punishment for his treachery.
Duncan Rock first appeared as Mountjoy with Elgarian solemnity, and thereafter sang efficiently, whilst David Soar embodied a sufficiently stern authority as Sir Walter Raleigh, the Captain of the Guard. Charles Rice was fidgety as Sir Robert Cecil – perhaps aptly, as the Queen’s faithful ‘elf’, with a slightly hunched shoulder here, as he had in real life – but he was more settled vocally, if lacking some musical personality. Age has hollowed out Sir Willard White’s voice somewhat, though that hardly seemed problematic in his depiction of the elderly Recorder of Norwich, and his inscrutability of tone served pretty well the (blind) Ballad Singer’s cryptic songs, which presage Essex’s downfall. Claire Barnett-Jones’s feisty Housewife – seeing off the would-be rebels – was no less commanding than Paula Murrihy and Eleanor Dennis’s steady accounts of the aristocratic ladies. Innocent Masuku was a lithe Spirit of the Masque, and Alex Otterburn a creditable Cuffe.
From the outset ENO music director Martyn Brabbins led the ENO Orchestra and Chorus in a completely and dramatically engaged reading of the score, bringing out the pomp of the public occasions and the surging passion and tension of the confrontation between Queen and Earl (not least in the rapture of the moving ‘Lute Song’, its words written by Essex) or the sessions in Council, all of which captivated throughout. The sizeable Chorus offered resounding contributions, particularly making up for the lack of action in the ‘Choral Dances’, and in musical terms fully a part of the drama, not at all bystanders.
The performance was recorded and is surely the equal of the fine Argo/Decca set with Sir Charles Mackerras and the WNO, and it was gratifying to see a nearly full Coliseum. Incidentally, as ENO battles for its future at that venue, it would surely go a long way to fulfil its mission in bringing opera to wide public attention if it were to put on more such infrequently encountered repertoire, in a similarly deft concert staging for one or two nights, as there are always ready audiences in London for that – as proved here, whose appreciation was amply rewarded on this marvellous occasion.
Gloriana – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by William Plomer based on Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex [sung in English with English surtitles]
Queen Elizabeth I – Christine Rice
Robert Devereux, 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 – Sir Willard White
A Housewife – Claire Barnett-Jones
The Sprit of the Masque – Innocent Masuku
English National Opera Chorus & Orchestra
Ruth Knight – Director
Ian Jackson-French – Lighting Designer
Sarah Bowen – Costume Designer
Corinne Young – Wigs, Hair & Make-up Designer
Barbara Šenoltová – Video Designer