Gloriana, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, June 2013

Unlike predecessors such as Peter Grimes (1945) and Billy Budd (1951), Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana may never be part of the standard repertoire, but the ROH has now given us a fine new perspective on this opera. Exactly sixty years after its first performances to celebrate the Queen’s Coronation, this newly imaginative, clever and colourful production by Richard Jones combines the costumes of the 1950s with those of Elizabethan times.

Essex and Mountjoy, all images ROH/ Clive Barda

Essex and Mountjoy, all images ROH/ Clive Barda

The essential idea is to present the opera as an Elizabethan drama staged for a 1953 audience, complete with a man in overalls operating an invisible curtain for scene changes. And at the start of each scene boys in grey flannels troop onto front-stage holding letters telling us the location of the action — a nice touch. The modern world remains visible throughout, mainly on the sides, though at the start of Act II in the Guildhall scene burghers of Norwich clad in various 1950s shades of green also appear in galleries at stage-rear. That scene is an interlude in this drama based on Lytton Strachey’s 1928 book Elizabeth and Essex, which gathers pace towards the end as Essex is condemned. After his death the Queen sees James VI of Scotland, transforming seamlessly into her chief minister, before finally meeting the fate of royalty and commoners alike.

Kings past

Kings past

Richard Jones has used a clever framing device here. Before the start of the opera, the 1953 Royal Family appears and views actors portraying a sequence of crowned monarchs going back to the late sixteenth century. And there the opera starts, with a tournament followed by the jealous reaction of Essex. Toby Spence as Essex sang with great youthful vigour and well portrayed the impetuous nature of the Queen’s favourite young courtier, though in the end he is undone by his own impulsiveness and ambition. The scene at the start of Act III where he wilfully enters the Queen’s chambers after returning from his unsuccessful campaign in Ireland was beautifully done, and the scene towards the end of the Act when Frances his wife, Penelope his sister, and Mountjoy all arrive to plead for his life was riveting.

Essex intrudes into the Queen's chambers

Essex intrudes into the Queen’s chambers

Susan Bullock gave a marvellously dramatic portrayal of the Queen, infuriated when Penelope (Kate Royal) makes a haughty defence of her brother after Patricia Bardon as Frances has pleaded so eloquently for her children and their father. Ms. Bardon’s voice, so familiar in the baroque repertoire, was magnificent in this role, and the whole opera was very well cast. Mark Stone was an excellent Mountjoy, Clive Bayley an amusing Raleigh whose smugness belied his assertive voice, and Jeremy Carpenter came over with strength and propriety as Sir Robert Cecil. Minor roles too were beautifully sung, particularly Andrew Tortise as the spirit of the masque in the Norwich scene, Brindley Sherratt as the blind ballad singer in the street scene of Act III, and Michel Souza as the City Crier at the end.

The Queen pinches Lady Essex's dress

The Queen pinches Lady Essex’s dress

This co-production with the Hamburg State Opera, with its excellent designs by Ultz, lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin, and choreography by Lucy Burge, does Britten’s opera proud. Full marks to the principals, particularly Susan Bullock and Patricia Bardon, for their dancing performances, and Paul Daniel in the orchestra pit brought out the joy of Britten’s score with its skilfully entwined Elizabethan melodies.

One small curiosity is the scene at Essex’s house in Act II, where spies with telescopes suddenly appear across the river. The telescope was made in abundance by a Dutch spectacle maker early in the next century, though there is ample evidence for a practical design in Elizabethan times, possibly kept as a State secret. Was Richard Jones making a point here?

Performances continue until July 6 — for details click here.

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