Covent Garden's sixtieth-anniversary production of Gloriana, designed by Ultz and directed by Jones
© Clive Barda 2013
Britten's Gloriana was commissioned to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, which took place in Westminster Abbey on June 2, 1953. The opera had its premiere at the Royal Opera House six days after that event, with John Pritchard pacing Joan Cross as Elizabeth I. The first night, on June 8, was a notorious flop: an official audience comprising courtiers, diplomats and members of various governments broadly gave the piece a cold shoulder. In some quarters, the representation in one scene of the bald and aging Elizabeth I onstage before the glamorous young Elizabeth II in the audience was even regarded as little more than an insult. Despite a much better response at subsequent performances, the production was dropped in 1954. Sadler's Wells Opera offered a new production by Colin Graham in 1966, with Sylvia Fisher as Elizabeth; this staging was revived in the 1980s and toured to the U.S. The Royal Opera only got around to staging a new version on June 20, 2013. Much has changed in the intervening sixty years, though the Queen — now a sprightly eighty-seven — is still there, and if polls are to be believed, more popular than ever; she did not attend the new Gloriana, however, spending the day at Ascot races, where her horse won the Gold Cup.
Designed by Ultz, Richard Jones's production referred specifically to the time of the opera's creation, and the young Elizabeth II appeared both at the beginning and the end of the show. The opera's prelude, in fact, accompanied a parade of British monarchs beginning in the present and moving back through the centuries to the Tudor period. The location was a village hall in the 1950s, where an amateur homage to the new Queen was being staged. From the opening scene at the tournament at Windsor, though, it was clear that the opera had become its own, fully professional production. Clever though Jones's framing device was, it inevitably had the effect of distancing the audience from the opera itself; its dramatization of the conflict between monarchical duty and human emotions played out between Elizabeth and her doomed favorite the Earl of Essex, as well as within Elizabeth herself, felt diminished.
Susan Bullock sang the central role of Elizabeth; at fifty three, she is the same age as Joan Cross, its original exponent, was at the world premiere. Bullock's voice, though, has lost some of its power and cutting edge, and the incisive regality of the character took a while to register. Gradually, however, it did, and Bullock made a definite impression in the later scenes of the opera, when Essex's dangerous ambitions force her to act against him, and especially in the spoken sections of the epilogue. She was partnered by Toby Spence, making his first appearance with the Royal Opera since surgery for thyroid cancer in 2012 seemed to threaten his career, if not his life; happily, it was clear that he has resumed full vocal capacity, and his ardent, impulsive portrayal of Elizabeth's dangerous courtier was from all points of view the highlight of the production.
Many of the singers of secondary roles nevertheless made their marks: Patricia Bardon's substantial mezzo fleshed out the lowest notes of Essex's wife, the Countess, though Kate Royal's soprano sounded a little cloudy as his spirited sister, Lady Rich. Baritone Mark Stone made a virile Mountjoy and his colleague Jeremy Carpenter a loyal Cecil, while bass Clive Bayley — his voice seemingly growing ever richer and more expressive these days — turned in a doughty if aptly watchful Sir Walter Raleigh. There was good work from both chorus and orchestra under conductor Paul Daniel, even if the score emerged piecemeal rather than in a constantly developing arc. Though the production represented a welcome return for Gloriana to its place of origin, it was not quite the convincing renewal in the work's fortunes many hoped it would be.
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