Gloriana, review: ENO turns "one of the great disasters of operatic history" into a triumph

The Golden Age: Willard White and Christine Rice - Nirah Sanghani
The Golden Age: Willard White and Christine Rice - Nirah Sanghani

The first night of Benjamin Britten’s opera Gloriana, written as a commission to mark the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, was in the memorable words of Lord Harewood “one of the great disasters of operatic history”. The audience of diplomats and ambassadors in their finery, including gloves that muffled any applause they offered, was evidently bemused by the story and bored by the music.

Indeed it seemed an odd choice of narrative for that moment: the conflict for the aged Queen Elizabeth I between her attraction for Robert, the Earl of Essex, and her determination to punish him for his failure to subdue rebels in Ireland. It is a bit like marking a royal wedding by commissioning an opera about Edward and Mrs Simpson (which, come to think of it, is a story with some great operatic potential…)

English National Opera was deprived of its original celebratory aim for this one-off revival of Gloriana by the death of the Queen. But another quirk of timing thrust the show into a day of turbulent revelations about the present royal family: uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, now as then.

Outstanding: Charles Rice as Robert Cecil - Nirah Sanghani
Outstanding: Charles Rice as Robert Cecil - Nirah Sanghani

Gloriana has taken a long time to escape from its negative perception as Britten’s least successful opera: but following successful revivals and much academic work, we are coming to see the piece, as a meditation on past and present, on power and responsibility, underpinned by a score that evocatively brings together ancient and modern in British music.

This was a concert staging by Ruth Knight, no mere read-through but a thoroughly prepared account: there was nothing to distract from the characters’ interaction up-front and close to the audience, backed by some tasteful projections and period costumes. The chorus’s sonorous act-two masque of Time and Concord harked back to Britten’s beloved Purcell, while the lute songs (scored for swooping harp) reached back still further to the imagined past.        

Crisp diction and sharply etched playing under Martyn Brabbins ensured that the opera was well projected. Among the excellent cast, Robert Murray’s Essex, Duncan Rock’s Mountjoy, and Charles Rice’s Cecil were outstanding; Willard White had a dual cameo as the Recorder of Norwich and as a ballad singer that was imposing if musically somewhat vague. At the centre of everything, Christine Rice’s magnificent Elizabeth was a repressed authoritarian queen who softened only when Essex appeared, and whose final disintegration caused her to reflect ruefully on her past.

In the end, for me neither the limited narrative nor the music of Gloriana puts it alongside Britten’s greatest operas, but it deserved this admirably committed revival.

No further performances