There is nothing in the rulebook to say that an opera house should never have more than one production in a season that breaks the fourth wall. After, however, watching Richard Jones’ Gloriana just a month after John Fulljames’ La donna del lago in which Rossini appeared as a character in his own work, I am wondering whether such a clause ought not to be inserted.
Benjamin Britten’s opera was written to mark the Coronation in 1953, and has not enjoyed many outings since. In exploring the trials and tribulations of Elizabeth I, who must balance her own feelings with her responsibilities towards national security, it very much celebrates the crowning of Elizabeth II without coming across as an overt piece of propaganda. In some ways it empathises with the new Queen by suggesting that she too will face difficult times and choices, but by exploring the final years of the ageing monarch it creates enough distance to ensure that the more distasteful aspects to the older character are not impressed upon the twenty-seven year old.
Elizabeth I is in many ways the type of outsider figure Britten loved to explore. Her immense, though far from absolute, power, however, still make her different to a Peter Grimes or Owen Wingrave, and the music consequently lacks some of the emotional starkness to be found in his other works. In Act III, however, it is no less psychologically intense, while at the various masques and balls it is interesting to experience Britten’s own spin on Tudor music. There are also some excellent musical contrasts such as when a jovial dance leads everyone off the stage to give way to more menacing strains as the Earl of Essex plants himself upon the throne.
Jones presents the drama as a ‘play within a play’ with Elizabeth II attending a performance of the work staged in 1953 in a large yet lowly municipal hall. The venue has all of the familiar features such as painted brickwork, large radiators and a vaulted steel roof, although the quality of the costumes and props feels incongruous with the budget that such a setting might normally muster. Jones may have done this because some of the sixteenth century scenes and emotions might be hard for us to relate to today, and the 1950s feel as nostalgic now as Tudor England did then.
However, expecting the singers to show that they are putting on a performance clouds the emotions being portrayed and prevents the audience from being sucked into the scenario. When, for example, Essex is wounded at the beginning, Toby Spence’s reactions are those of an actor playing the part of being injured, which prevents us from connecting with the nobleman’s feelings of outrage and mortification. Similarly, seeing Susan Bullock sip water in between scenes as a performer destroys the magic she has conjured up to convince us that she really is the Virgin Queen.
This problem becomes less acute as the evening wears on as it seems the performers forget about the need to portray performing and instead just perform, and once one gets over this central issue there is much to enjoy in the staging’s clever touches. Within the hall setting, we see the wings of the stage and hence (as happens in many an amateur performance) the people not required in the scene singing from offstage to boost the sound. A coach made up of flowers is brought on with only the two wheels closest to the audience revolving. At the ball, the principals are joined in their dancing by professionals, which is probably how Tudor banquets played out with attention being given to those with the greatest ability or the highest status.
Despite a few problems initially presented by the staging, Susan Bullock succeeds in making us see Elizabeth as a flesh and blood human being who can make serious State decisions one minute and demonstrate childish cruelty (she mocks Lady Essex by stealing and donning her dress) the next. This is highly believable because David Cameron may well have had a drink and sung karaoke in the same twenty-four hours in which he discussed Syria. Bullock’s rich, rounded and sumptuous voice is ideally suited to asserting presence, authority and character, and the scene in which she appears bald, her body stripped of its finery and her emotions laid bare, is particularly moving.
Bullock is surrounded by a large and very strong cast that includes Toby Spence as the Earl of Essex and Mark Stone as Lord Mountjoy, as well as Clive Bayley, Jeremy Carpenter, Kate Royal and Patricia Bardon. Gloriana is an opera, however, where not only those with the most stage time have the opportunity to shine. Brindley Sherratt has just one scene as the Blind Ballad-Singer, but his deep bass voice, with its exquisite mastery of dynamic variation, leaves an impression that far exceeds the size of his role, while Andrew Tortise stands out as the Spirit of the Masque. In the pit Paul Daniel conducts with a pleasing combination of relish and sensitivity deriving from an excellent understanding of Britten’s intentions. The result is a production whose flaws do not seriously infringe on the level of enjoyment to be gleaned from it, and in Britten’s centenary year it is definitely one to experience.
There will be a live cinema screening of Gloriana at cinemas worldwide on 24 June 2013. For further details click here.
Gloriana will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 on 29 June 2013.