The Benjamin Britten opera fest across the country continues at Covent Garden with the composer’s famous first-night flop, written in honour of the Coronation of 1953. He chose to depict the relationship between Elizabeth I and her not-so-loyal favourite Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex; and it would seem that the conspiracy of bored dignitaries, jealous rivals and conniving reviewers of that premiere were mostly wrong. Few could fail to be impressed by this celebration of Tudor music, with its attendant bourées and galliards, masques and general pageantry.
Admittedly, it begins too slowly and fussily, with a few Elizabethan theatrical clichés thrown in, such as a jousting match taking place behind a wall. Indeed, not much happens until the end of a long (90 minutes) first half, but when it gets going, there is genuine dramatic tension, intrigue and poignancy.
Director Richard Jones, desperate to avoid the historical drama seeming twee and parochial, frames ‘Gloriana’ within the context of the Coronation celebrations – setting the Tudor-style opera in a municipal hall, with a caretaker and pair of soldiers casually watching it along with other 1950s folk. The irony, however, is that in doing so, he points up the idea that the piece is twee and parochial and so fails in his conceit. Credit where it is due, though, his production of young schoolboys sporadically emerging with letter cards, which they hold up to spell out the time and place of the action, is inspired.
Conductor Paul Daniel finds the British sensibility within the score, coaxing sympathetic accompaniment to the courtly dances, languid arias and rousing fanfares, while underpinning it with Britten’s unsettling twentieth-century music, which creeps beneath the texture of the Tudor pastiche.
In a cast of impressive voices, the bright, burnished tenor of Toby Spence as the dashing Essex stands out, not to mention him gamely showing off his Tudor moves on the dance floor. Soprano Susan Bullock pulls out a compelling performance as Good Queen Bess, running the gamut of states from imperious to vulnerable, vengeful to dutiful – giving an insight into how a woman held on to power in this most macho of periods. The scene where she is discovered bald-headed by Essex in her boudoir is quite touching.
Of the supporting cast, as the Blind Ballad-Singer, Brindley Sherratt’s bass voice rings out like polished stone, as he sits painted marble white and recounts the fate of the traitor Essex. Meanwhile, bass Clive Bayley makes a great ever-conspiring Sir Walter Raleigh. Jonathan Lennie