On Britten’s “Gloriana” at the ENO

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.

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