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BRITTEN: Gloriana

DVD Button S. Walker, E. Vaughan, Russell, Rigby; A .R. Johnson, Howlett, Opie, Donnelly, Bailey, Van Allen; English National Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Elder. Production: Graham. Arthaus Musik 109152 (Blu-ray), 109151 (DVD), 147 mins., subtitled

Recordings Gloriana Cover 316

GLORIANA IS THE STEPCHILD  among Britten’s operas. Its premiere, in June 1953, part of the celebrations surrounding the coronation of England’s second Queen Elizabeth, was a notorious flop. The audience of nobility, politicians and other dignitaries, expecting a jolly “Merrie England” entertainment, was unprepared for Britten’s musically sophisticated, psychologically probing portrait of Elizabeth I and her ill-fated relationship with the Earl of Essex.

Revivals have been sparse, and this 1984 English National Opera production is the only available video that presents the work complete in its originally intended setting. Colin Graham’s staging is a lot like an old-fashioned movie spectacle, sometimes a little overdone and occasionally careless, as in the scene where Elizabeth mocks Essex’s wife by putting on her dress. The dress is meant to be too small for the queen, but here it’s not a bad fit. Later, when Essex turns up in the queen’s chamber “besprent with mud and hollow-eyed,” he doesn’t look all that different from before.

Because of its ceremonial nature, Britten and librettist William Plomer made Gloriana a number opera, alternating spectacle with intimate moments. The scenes set out in the open, notably an extended masque and ballet in Act II, are tedious and trite, but the personal segments—duets between Elizabeth and Essex, the Queen’s self-questioning monologues—contain some of the composer’s most inspired work. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Walker sings splendidly, even though the role lies high for her, and sharply delineates the queen’s public and private moments. She’s most moving when she appears in front of Essex in Act III, partially dressed, wigless and very human—and she conveys with great conviction her conflict and heartbreak over signing his death warrant.

Anthony Rolfe Johnson’s swashbuckling, virtuoso-dancing Essex conveys the historical reality that Elizabeth might love and desire him yet simultaneously realize that his recklessness and opportunism would be fatal to her reign. The similarity of his timbre to that of the role’s first portrayer, Peter Pears, is particularly evident in the Second Lute Song, which became the opera’s hit tune and most familiar passage.

There’s an array of juicy supporting parts, each brought to life here by an artist of stature. Jean Rigby’s lovely-to-look-at Countess of Essex is rich-voiced and poignant, while Elizabeth Vaughan puts the right amount of vitriol into her voice and visage to convey the determined ambition of Essex’s sister Penelope. As Penelope’s illicit lover and Essex’s enemy-turned-friend Mountjoy, Neil Howlett is dashing and resonant, while the ringing baritone of Alan Opie and the glorious low bass of Richard Van Allan complement their superb acting as the conspirators against Essex, Cecil and Raleigh. The venerable Norman Bailey appears in a memorable cameo as the blind ballad singer who predicts and comments on Essex’s fate in an unusual and effective genre scene near the end. Not least in the success of this admirable production is the expert work of ENO’s excellent orchestra, under Mark Elder, from the magnificent brass fanfares that open the opera (and return in the important festive segments) to the colorful sound of the gittern that accompanies the balladeer’s ominous outcries.  —Robert Croan

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