22 Jun 2013

Britten’s Gloriana, Covent Garden

A glance at the ROH programme which accompanies this new production of Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana reveals a striking number of ‘role débuts’; evidence that, since its Coronation-commissioned revelation in 1953, this opera has had a relatively quiet 60 years - hyperbolically announced as ‘one of the great disasters of operatic history’ at its troubled opening.

Now, in 2013, as our reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, celebrates a lifetime devoted to her realm, director Richard Jones transports us back to the beginning, to a village hall - the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh? - reconstructing (deconstructing?) the opening night of the opera which announced a new Elizabethan age with a re-visitation of the first regal Elizabeth’s glories and shortcomings.

Initially we are confronted with the simple exterior of a theatre. A dignitary paces impatiently beneath the royal crest and flag which adorns the façade, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the royal party; Queen and consort enter, slightly bemused by the cultural offering bestowed in their honour. The ‘fourth wall’ is lifted to reveal an unsophisticated platform; prompter, janitor, curtain hoister and bell-ringer loiter with anticipation in the wings. The orchestral prologue commences, visually illustrated by a perfectly choreographed reverse parade through British monarchical history - faultlessly in keeping with current Conservative-party educational policy - until we arrive at the first age of Elizabethan magnificence and mal-contentment. In a brisk sweep - reminiscent of the gallery of ancestral portraits illuminated by the Prologue to Owen Wingrave - Richard Jones makes a virtue of the opera’s potential cause for irritation - its whimsicality and twee ‘Merrie England-ishness’.

Henceforth, all sentimental, mawkish, am-dram naff-ness is viewed through a knowingly ironic filter - which, in fact, perfectly complements the parodies and self-parodies of Britten’s score. Thus, the Act 1 joust presents a pantomime horse, dipping and diving, as a disgruntled Earl of Essex (Toby Spence) enviously espies the equestrian triumphs of Lord Mountjoy (Mark Stone) - soon to be reveal resplendent in eye-watering Queen-Bee zig-zags - by peering over a mock-brick wall at the ceremonial contest. As the imperial Elizabeth progresses through her realm, the various venues which receive the regal company are signposted by a gaggle of grey-uniformed public school-boys, whose thrust-aloft placards announce our successive locations.

Ultz’s designs and the eye-watering complementary colour schemes of Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting scheme emphasise both power and transience, from the outsized wooden throne placed centre-stage, to the iconographical pictorialism of the inner chamber - all skulls, scrolls, leather-bound learned manuscripts and lutes.

Amid this symbolic landscape, the cast are uniformly outstanding in presenting a narrative of conflicting loyalties and self-destructive betrayals.

At the heart of it all is Susan Bullock’s Gloriana, magnificently divine yet painfully human, every word of text used with intelligence and creativity to simultaneously win our sympathies and earn our censures. Exposed in Act 3 by Essex’s untimely and improper arrival and intrusion, balding, dishevelled and defenceless, she retains an essential dignity. Lonely and unaided, bullied by the unequivocal pronouncements of her courtiers into signing the death warrant of her paramour, Bullock’s Gloriana agonisingly disintegrates, much like Grimes or Vere; all that remains to console are fragments and memories, as the curtain which slowly closes on the isolated monarch announces her alienation and mortality. The spoken text powerfully announces her diminution and creative diminishment and defeat.

GLORIANA-130617_2002.gifKate Royal as Lady Rich, Toby Spence as Essex, Patricia Bardon as Countess of Essex, Mark Stone as Lord Mountjoy

Toby Spence makes a credibly sympathetic figure of the solipsistic Essex, full of a vigorous vitality which is undermined by maudlin melancholy. After serious health concerns, Spence is almost back to his best. Albeit weak and unpredictable, Essex’s devotion to the Queen is not in doubt. By turns tender, ebullient and defiant, Spence’s Essex is petulant, querulous but also truthful, winning our heart with his delicately expressive, self-revelatory second lute song, ‘Happy were we’, while arousing our distrust by - a theatrical masterstroke by Jones - surreptitiously and presumptuously usurping the unoccupied throne, when the royal party has departed after the ceremonial entertainments which close Act 2. The rapid blackout exacerbates our unease regarding his audacious intentions.

It is quite a trial for the singers to bring credibility and roundedness to librettist William Plomer’s rather one-dimension ‘puppets’, but the cast rises impressively to the challenge. Jeremy Carpenter’s Lord Cecil is the emblem of gravity and stateliness; the guarded confidence between the Queen and her ‘trusty elf’ is complemented by a Machiavellian manipulation, most particularly in the Act 3 ‘Cecil’s Warning’, as the influential Lord cunningly persuades his monarch to repel her former devotee.

Mark Stone’s Lord Mountjoy is buoyantly self-congratulatory; yet, casting pride aside, he pleads sincerely for his rival, before Frances Devereux, Essex’s sister, (Patricia Bardon) gently but futilely beseeches the Queen to show clemency and compassion. Kate Royal is a convincing Lady Penelope Rich - opinionated yet without fraudulence, pleading desperately for leniency for Essex before a hostile and unforgiving monarch, before succumbing to more histrionic outpourings in the Epilogue. In the cameo role of the Blind Ballad-singer, Brindley Sherratt is ironically Beckmesserian.

There is no evading the fact that Britten’s episodic second Act lacks dramatic momentum. The pastiche, albeit clever and effortless, serves to flatter its creator’s facility rather than to further the drama (the former is foregrounded by, for example, the harpist’s visibility in the wings during the lute songs). The lengthy sequence of theatrical rituals and dances, while flamboyantly stylistic, are ultimately static and somewhat sterile. In this context, the villagers’ vegetable mosaic, designed to celebrate regal fruitfulness and profligacy, is appropriately humdrum.

Yet, Jones’ presentation of the masque of Time and Concord is, as rudimentary moon and sun are heaved aloft from the wings, elementary but honest; similarly, Lucy Burge’s choreography produces stylised but touching performances from dancers Lake Laoutaris-Smith and Giulia Pazzaglia. The choral dances which end the Act are vigorous and energising, Spence et al matching the lusty leaps and bounds of the professional athletes.

Off-stage or on-stage, the ROH chorus are splendidly resplendent and resonant. The idolatrous ‘Green leaves are we’ chorus which permeates the score is heartfelt and warming. Conductor Paul Daniel is well-served by his woodwind players, whose expressive nuances communicates the underlying drama with virtuosity and insight, just as the whole instrumental ensemble conjures both bright majesty in the scenes of public ceremony and dark unrest when their dynamic surges represented the inner turbulences of the troubled Queen.

Jones has totally captured the antagonistic energies of this opera. Unease and imbalance characterise both dynamic relationships and structural organisation, as public and private are opposed but never reconciled. Condemned as ‘not a Great Britten’ at its first appearance, Jones convinces us that - despite its flaws - this is a Glorious Gloriana.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Earl of Essex: Toby Spence; Henry Cuffe: Benjamin Bevan; Lord Mountjoy: Mark Stone; Elizabeth I: Susan Bullock; Sir Walter Raleigh: Clive Bayley; Sir Robert Cecil: Jeremy Carpenter; Recorder of Norwich: Jeremy White; Spirit of the Masque: Andrew Tortise; Time: Lake Laoutaris-Smith’ Concord: Ciulia Pazzaglia; Penelope Lady Rich: Kate Royal; Frances Devereux: Patricia Bardon; Blind Ballad Singer: Brindley Sherratt; Conductor: Paul Daniel; Director: Richard Jones; Designs: Ultz; Lighting Design: Mimi Jordan Sherin; Choreography: Lucy Burge. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Thursday 20th June 2013