On Britten’s “Gloriana” at the ENO

by Barendina Smedley

It was a great treat to see one of Benjamin Britten’s least-performed operas, Gloriana, at the ENO last night. The production, taking place on one night only, was a special tribute to her late majesty Queen Elizabeth II. 

The tribute was very fitting. Gloriana (op. 53) was composed by Britten in 1952, to a libretto by William Plomer, to serve as part of the late Queen’s coronation festivities. The first public performance took place at the Royal Opera House in front of the youthful Queen, accompanied by members of the royal family and assorted dignitaries including the Queen of Tonga and Jawaharlal Nehru, only six days after the coronation. The sets and costumes had been designed by John Piper. The opera included plenty of Merry Olde England type dancing, trumpets and a sad song notionally played on a lute, plus throngs of humorous fishwives and urchins. It must have been quite a spectacle.

It was also, famously, a failure. When one goes, these days, to read up on Gloriana, failure is the most famous thing about it. The critics, having adored Peter Grimes and fawned over Billy Budd, didn’t much care for Gloriana. Worse still, it came to be regarded as a matter of fact that the Queen and those around her didn’t like the opera either, which was, according to taste, either a token of their innate philistinism or a prickliness about how the monarch was depicted in Plomer’s text — and while there seems to be not the tiniest shred of evidence supporting this belief, when has that ever held people back from taking ill-informed views about the monarchy?

And so it was that Gloriana was consigned to the sad category of Britten’s lesser-known major works. True, it has been revived several times, to considerable success. A second production took place in 1966 at Sadler’s Wells Opera (the ENO’s predecessor); there were further productions in 1992, 1994 and 1999. Finally, in 2013 the Royal Opera House staged a single performance as part of the celebrations of the centenary of Britten’s birth. All the same — it is rare to spot this particular creature in the wild. All the more reason, then, to welcome the chance to see Gloriana on stage, and to judge for ourselves.

Directed by Ruth Knight, the ENO’s Gloriana was announced as a concert staging. In fact, the production turned out to be much less austere than those words imply. Of course, for a single performance, there’s a limit to what can or should be done in terms of costumes, sets, choreography. Still, with the clever use of projections onto a gauze screen, traditional late Tudor costumes and plenty of courtly bows and curtseys, Knight conjures up an atmosphere of shadows, uncertainty and performances that can’t always quite be trusted.

The story is set in the mid 1590s, very near the end of the reign of Elizabeth I. The elderly queen has not yet named her successor. While outwardly deferential, everyone is scheming for a prime role in whatever comes next. The queen herself basically knows that this is the case, however much she might like to pretend otherwise. 

The ENO’s Gloriana is, in every sense, a dark opera. It falls into three acts. The first is all about court rivalries, revolving around the Queen and her ever-shifting favour. The second, incorporating a masque and various dances, reveals the extent to which these public rituals of love and loyalty camouflage a bleak reality of cynicism, scheming, even treason. And in the third, we watch this conflict burst into plain sight, with terrible consequences for everyone concerned. 

It might, perhaps, with a different budget, been marginally brighter. This is meant, by the way, as no criticism of the ENO’s production, which does a remarkable amount with what’s available. The original staging of the opera borrowed, for instance, dancers from the Sadler’s Wells Ballet to perform the various dances, and other productions have got a lot more dancing out of the principal singers, too. (How anyone is supposed to sing a note after leaping about for five minutes mystifies me, but then I never really understand how anyone sings opera while fighting or being chased about or falling to the floor, which effectively rules out most of the canon, so what do I know?) One suspects that for practical reasons involving funding and rehearsal time, this simply wasn’t possible in the case of last night’s performance. 

At the margins, these constraints probably did make a bit of a difference to the tone of the overall opera. During the royal progress through Norwich, for instance, there’s a delightful interlude where local rustics present the Queen with gifts. (Britten had spent several deeply unhappy years at Gresham’s in Holt, so his engagement with Norfolk was more than purely theoretical.) Had this been done by e.g. brightly-dressed members of the chorus bearing, for the sake of argument, props like fish and cabbages, it would have lightened the mood. The same might have been done with the boisterous, bouncing, explicitly sweat-inducing dances at the end of the same act. 

As it was, though, what gestures there were towards dance steps were stately and grave; the chorus dressed all in black, as did most of the principals; when one character, Lady Essex, turns up in a colourful dress, the scene literally hinges on the outrageousness of the gesture, and the Queen’s own dysfunctional, vindictive reaction. We are almost, one feels, in Duchess of Malfi territory here; the refulgent brilliance of the Elizabethan Age is shading into something darker, less glorious and much more frightening. 

The singing here was universally strong. Christine Rice’s Elizabeth is, first and foremost, a thoroughly believable human being: able to keep up a performance of geniality, majesty and a genuine devotion to her subjects, while at the same time no stranger to moments of malice, self-pity, whimsy and pure vindictiveness. This matters, because I don’t think it would be possible to make Gloriana work without an Elizabeth who really forces us to care about her. Rice achieves this flawlessly. Robert Murray captures Essex’s impetuosity and egotism, if perhaps not all his improbably glamour. Eleanor Dennis, the “dark Penelope” Rich, swoops and soars through her lines, justifying the queen’s envy, distrust and ultimate fury. Charles Rice is a politic, precise survivor — in short, a one hundred percent historically accurate Cecil. And there was a real star turn from the 76-year old Sir Willard White, no less, double-hatted as the infirm but courtly Recorder of Norwich and also the blind Ballad Singer, carrying off one of the score’s more haunting melodies with an effortlessness that felt as if he was making it up as he went along — an unforgettable moment in a memorable production.

I could go on, but you get the general idea. 

One more singer, though, who deserves a specific mention is ENO Harewood Artist Innocent Masuku, a South African-born tenor who has a brief outing here as the Spirit of the Masque. With a remarkably beautiful voice and real on-stage charisma, he manages to turn a relatively minor role into one of the standout performances of the night. He is definitely one to watch.

But then as is usual with Britten, the chorus and the orchestra end up doing a lot of the heavy lifting. And here is where the ENO comes into its magnificent, irreplaceable own. Because where else could you find a group of musicians who could rise so brilliantly to the challenge of staging a single, one-off performance of a slightly obscure Britten opera? Britten asks, I think, odd things of the chorus — they have to be the fickle mob and the gossiping townsfolk, as well as the subconscious voice of various Tudor aristocrats, as well as a kind of Greek chorus articulating ultimate truths. That the ENO chorus can do this apparently effortlessly says so much about the unique role the ENO plays in our national artistic life. 

And the same is true, ceteris paribus, of the ENO orchestra, conducted by Martyn Brabbins, who unfailingly capture Britten’s bleak, witchy, uncomfortable language, swelling to majestic waves of feeling when required — then dialling it right back down to a single mournful or wilfully discordant phrase. Sadly, no recording, however perfect, can quite manage to capture the magic of hearing this done in real life. I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to be present at the performance last night.

There is one more point on which the ENO deserves to be congratulated. The world being what it is, there must surely have been a temptation here to frame Gloriana in some “quirky” way, to create a bit of distance between the audience and what Britten has in store for them — to do something, anything, to blunt the earnestness of this opera. Yet the ENO play this one straight as can be. So for this, too, I am grateful. Anyone who comes to Britten wanting to hear what Britten wrote, what Britten intended, could have found it here. And the result was a much more thoughtful, moving, indeed wonderful opera than I had expected. 

So if Gloriana is so good, why is it invariably branded a failure?

In passing, one should note that Gloriana isn’t, as written, a perfect opera. For reasons I don’t entirely understand, Britten didn’t write music for the set-changes, so there are a few longeurs from which everyone struggles a bit to recover. The pace is uneven. While there are magnificent passages, including the song Essex sings to Elizabeth, there aren’t really any of the set-piece unforgettable tunes one finds, for instance, in Peter Grimes or The Turn of the Screw.

The main reason for Gloriana’s initial failure surely lay, though, less in its quality per se than in its timing. If the idea was to create a feel-good musical celebration of the start of a new era, then the commission surely should have gone to someone like William Walton, whose Crown Imperial (written for the coronation of Edward VIII, but first performed for the coronation of George VI) was and is perfect “modern” coronation music, and whose supposed hack work, eg his music for Olivier’s Henry V, holds up remarkably well. Instead, though, the job went to the prickly, divisive composer of cheery works like Peter Grimes. What could possibly go wrong?

The inspiration for Gloriana is always said to lie in Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History (1928). Perhaps this is so. A more proximate influence, though, was surely Edith Sitwell’s poetic evocation of the early life of the Virgin Queen in Fanfare for Elizabeth (1946) and then the research that was to culminate in The Queens and the Hive (1962). Edith Sitwell knew Britten, Plomer, Piper and others in the circle that created Gloriana, and it is precisely her understanding of Elizabeth I that animates the narrative: her vanity, that famously arcane and ingrown sexuality, her ultimate and essential loneliness. 

In any event, the work that was eventually played out before the new queen — at the age of 26, already the happily married mother of two healthy children — was a bleak assessment of the nature of monarchy. In summary, as monarch, we are told, your private life must always be sacrificed in favour of your public role; you can trust no one, not even those you love the most — and then in the end, you die. When the curtain comes down here, it does so on the spectacle of the sovereign reduced to a frail, broken old woman in a shift that might as well be a shroud, literally at the moment of her death. 

As theatre, it’s brilliant. At the performance last night, the silence that followed the darkening of the stage was as dense, profound and almost painful as anything I’ve encountered. But as royal entertainment? Had this been 1953 and had a young female sovereign, her whole future ahead of her, been present, applause at that point would have felt deeply inappropriate. What, after all, would we have been applauding? There is a line very near the end of the final scene where Elizabeth protests against the outrage of having her winding-sheet held up, metaphorically speaking, before her eyes. She has a point.

Now, of course, in the winter of 2022, the context is very different. We have only just lived through the grave, unforgettable last act of a production that ran for seventy years, encompassing, for many, not only our whole lives but often those of our parents or even grandparents, too. We have seen a queen grow old and die and, as part of the present-day ritual of that passing, we have revisited the granular mythic detail of that long life: the joys and tragedies, the moments of danger, the disappointments and instances of personal sacrifice. We have seen the insignia of state separated at last from the person of a tiny old lady, her earthly remains laid to rest alongside those of her ancestors. And we have witnessed the mystery by which sovereignty passes, light as that shallow last breath, from one monarch to her successor. We have seen the death of an Elizabethan age. We live now in the dark dawn of whatever comes next.

These are not easy times, any more than the 1590s were. This will not be an easy winter. The times feel like Britten’s music: spare, brittle, cold and comfortless. At moments like these, it is extremely easy for politicians, faced with genuinely appalling choices regarding the distribution of funding resources, to treat the arts in general, and opera in particular, as an obvious non-necessity — good fun for the privileged elite, perhaps, but not remotely essential. And one can understand that point of view. 

All the same, looking around the Coliseum last night, the counter-argument shone out bright and clear. The ENO offers free tickets for under-21s. Apparently, something like ten percent of those present were experiencing live opera for the first time. This wasn’t dumbed-down pap for the easily-confused, either — it was a proper, English-language, mid-century opera, performed with intelligence and seriousness. Who else is going to do this, if not the ENO? Who will keep these inherited traditions of performance and reception alive? 

Opera North, the ENO’s talented offspring, is a remarkable organisation — their Parsifal earlier this year is literally one of the best things I’ve ever heard in my life — but is it really right that London, a world city, should have no opera company of its own with a conscious emphasis on English, and English-language, opera, complete with a successful education and outreach mission? Is it right that the behind-the-scenes expertise that goes into lighting, staging and so forth should simply drift off elsewhere, as if formal musical culture was something that Britain no longer felt able to maintain? Is it right that we are now expected to engage with the future while cutting ourselves loose from our own musical past — its insights, its rituals and its evolving musical language?

Of course central government subsidy isn’t the only way to fund the arts. Of course the ENO should be encouraged to seek out commercial sponsorship and private funding wherever possible. At the same time, our government would do well to recognise that in nurturing the existence of a shared cultural life, at once internationally relevant yet also deeply rooted in the specific experiences of our own country, the ENO contributes something on which it is hard to put any exact monetary value, but that would be missed, in all sorts of ways, if it were to disappear.

People need art in bad times, perhaps even more than in good times. If Gloriana last night seemed at once bleak but also extremely beautiful, it’s a reminder that art can sometimes strike a nerve in ways we don’t entirely expect. The government needs to rethink its policy on arts funding. Otherwise, it risks a world in which darkness is more than just a matter of more or less effective staging decisions.