I’m sure Richard Jones’ production of Britten’s 1953 Coronation gift-gone-awry will have split the audience; it certainly did our little group. The device of framing it as a small-town production of the opera around the time of its composition (complete with visiting QEII to witness it) provided some cluttered ‘business’ in the wings – directors, stagehands, man in overalls to raise the ‘unseen’ curtain, that sort of thing. However, whilst others found it difficult to connect with, I thought it a fine evening dramatically, just as it was musically.
Certainly it took a little bit of getting used to, but I found I was quickly drawn in. The visuals brought freshness and vigour, especially to the dance episodes, with a nice tableau for the court visit to Norwich; some deft chorus work nicely framed the courtly confrontations. As the story darkened, so did the stage picture, down to the final image of the lonely Queen looking dwarfed by her coronation chair (complete with Stone of Scone, which had seemingly followed her around the country). The opera had begun with a backwards-procession of the monarchs of England, neatly choreographed, and the story culminated in Bess swatting away the presumptuous hand of James VI/I as he reached for her throne (nice idea, slightly lacking in gravitas as it was executed…) Overall, it was a well thought-through take on an opera often classified as ‘troublesome’ in some way, nicely balancing witty with emotively serious, and showing the work to be a lucid and tender treatment of the ageing Queen Elizabeth I. To that extent, much like La Donna del Lago, I thought it helped to release the slightly fanciful story from the burden of any pretence at verisimilitude.
Musically, the stars were undoubtedly the orchestra and Paul Daniel as its conductor. The score came out with a glorious richness, almost Verdian in parts (appropriate for a piece that brings to mind the public-private clashes of Don Carlo, to take just one example), but always with fantastic clarity that brought Britten’s acute observational voice to the fore. The drama of the concluding scenes truly was gripping.
All the singers took their parts with impressive dramatic concentration. As the Queen, Susan Bullock took me by surprise at the intensity of her charting of the monarch’s disintegration, and the vulnerability of her exposure as an old, frail woman, viscerally pointed up by Jones’ movement, lighting and overall personenregie; she also thrilled in her venomous outbursts. It was easily the most impressive role I’ve seen her do; I’d love to see it again. Toby Spence ideally captured the haughty presumption of the Earl of Essex, and he danced the set pieces with aplomb – which compliment couldn’t quite be accorded Bullock – alas! – conjuring up a shade of Joyce Grenfell’s Stately as a Galleon during those episodes, notwithstanding her ultimately skilful blending into the character she was portraying. Anyway, Essex was backed up by vivid characterisations for his treacherous family: the ever-sharp Patricia Bardon was in rich and communicative voice as Frances, Countess of Essex, and Kate Royal sang with delicate beauty as Penelope, Lady Rich, but perhaps just needed an ounce or two more power for the final showdown in front of the Queen. Clive Bayley was statesmanlike even in his scheming as Sir Walter Raleigh, and Jeremy Carpenter impressed as the ‘little elf’ (as the Queen referred to him), Sir Robert Cecil. Of the many smaller roles, Andrew Tortise stood out as the Spirit of the Masque in the Norwich tableau, with some beautifully firm singing, and Brindley Sherratt made much of the Ballad-Singer who provides the citizens of London with their news update.
Reflecting on the reception that the opera received at its premiere, I can well imagine the shock that was generated by the timing of so raw a story of the private passions of a past monarch. However, the Jubilee year has been awash with hokum about the present Queen’s ‘sense of duty’ and her ‘self-sacrifice’ in the face of the monstrous role she ‘must’ perform. If anything Gloriana is a remarkable tribute to exactly the sorts of sacrifices that have to be made by so public an authority, and the terrible ways in which such a role distorts any and all personal relationships. Britten couldn’t have known that the themes of his opera would prove so current during the Diamond Jubilee celebrations – could he? – but I can’t help but be disappointed that the Queen thought it too much of an inconvenience to take an evening out to see for herself (having preferred a rather more anodyne ‘gala’ mixed bag instead for her seemingly less-than-decennial visit to the ROH).
Anyway, speaking of celebrations, the Britten Centenary year can be very pleased indeed with this contribution.