Britten’s Gloriana, Covent Garden

Now, in 2013, as our reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, celebrates a
lifetime devoted to her realm, director Richard Jones transports us back to the
beginning, to a village hall – the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh? –
reconstructing (deconstructing?) the opening night of the opera which announced
a new Elizabethan age with a re-visitation of the first regal Elizabeth’s
glories and shortcomings.

Initially we are confronted with the simple exterior of a theatre. A
dignitary paces impatiently beneath the royal crest and flag which adorns the
faÁade, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the royal party; Queen and consort
enter, slightly bemused by the cultural offering bestowed in their honour. The
‘fourth wall’ is lifted to reveal an unsophisticated platform; prompter,
janitor, curtain hoister and bell-ringer loiter with anticipation in the wings.
The orchestral prologue commences, visually illustrated by a perfectly
choreographed reverse parade through British monarchical history –
faultlessly in keeping with current Conservative-party educational policy –
until we arrive at the first age of Elizabethan magnificence and
mal-contentment. In a brisk sweep – reminiscent of the gallery of ancestral
portraits illuminated by the Prologue to Owen Wingrave – Richard
Jones makes a virtue of the opera’s potential cause for irritation – its
whimsicality and twee ‘Merrie England-ishness’.

Henceforth, all sentimental, mawkish, am-dram naff-ness is viewed through a
knowingly ironic filter – which, in fact, perfectly complements the parodies
and self-parodies of Britten’s score. Thus, the Act 1 joust presents a
pantomime horse, dipping and diving, as a disgruntled Earl of Essex (Toby
Spence) enviously espies the equestrian triumphs of Lord Mountjoy (Mark Stone)
– soon to be reveal resplendent in eye-watering Queen-Bee zig-zags – by
peering over a mock-brick wall at the ceremonial contest. As the imperial
Elizabeth progresses through her realm, the various venues which receive the
regal company are signposted by a gaggle of grey-uniformed public school-boys,
whose thrust-aloft placards announce our successive locations.

Ultz’s designs and the eye-watering complementary colour schemes of Mimi
Jordan Sherin’s lighting scheme emphasise both power
and transience, from the outsized wooden throne placed centre-stage, to the
iconographical pictorialism of the inner chamber – all skulls, scrolls,
leather-bound learned manuscripts and lutes.

Amid this symbolic landscape, the cast are uniformly outstanding in
presenting a narrative of conflicting loyalties and self-destructive betrayals.

At the heart of it all is Susan Bullock’s Gloriana, magnificently divine
yet painfully human, every word of text used with intelligence and creativity
to simultaneously win our sympathies and earn our censures. Exposed in Act 3 by
Essex’s untimely and improper arrival and intrusion, balding, dishevelled and
defenceless, she retains an essential dignity. Lonely and unaided, bullied by
the unequivocal pronouncements of her courtiers into signing the death warrant
of her paramour, Bullock’s Gloriana agonisingly disintegrates, much like
Grimes or Vere; all that remains to console are fragments and memories, as the
curtain which slowly closes on the isolated monarch announces her alienation
and mortality. The spoken text powerfully announces her diminution and creative
diminishment and defeat.

GLORIANA-130617_2002.gifKate Royal as Lady Rich, Toby Spence as Essex, Patricia Bardon as Countess of Essex, Mark Stone as Lord Mountjoy

Toby Spence makes a credibly sympathetic figure of the solipsistic Essex,
full of a vigorous vitality which is undermined by maudlin melancholy. After
serious health concerns, Spence is almost back to his best. Albeit weak and
unpredictable, Essex’s devotion to the Queen is not in doubt. By turns
tender, ebullient and defiant, Spence’s Essex is petulant, querulous but also
truthful, winning our heart with his delicately expressive, self-revelatory
second lute song, ‘Happy were we’, while arousing our distrust by – a
theatrical masterstroke by Jones – surreptitiously and presumptuously
usurping the unoccupied throne, when the royal party has departed after the
ceremonial entertainments which close Act 2. The rapid blackout exacerbates our
unease regarding his audacious intentions.

It is quite a trial for the singers to bring credibility and roundedness to
librettist William Plomer’s rather one-dimension ‘puppets’, but the cast
rises impressively to the challenge. Jeremy Carpenter’s Lord Cecil is the
emblem of gravity and stateliness; the guarded confidence between the Queen and
her ‘trusty elf’ is complemented by a Machiavellian manipulation, most
particularly in the Act 3 ‘Cecil’s Warning’, as the influential Lord
cunningly persuades his monarch to repel her former devotee.

Mark Stone’s Lord Mountjoy is buoyantly self-congratulatory; yet, casting
pride aside, he pleads sincerely for his rival, before Frances Devereux,
Essex’s sister, (Patricia Bardon) gently but futilely beseeches the Queen to
show clemency and compassion. Kate Royal is a convincing Lady Penelope Rich –
opinionated yet without fraudulence, pleading desperately for leniency for
Essex before a hostile and unforgiving monarch, before succumbing to more
histrionic outpourings in the Epilogue. In the cameo role of the Blind
Ballad-singer, Brindley Sherratt is ironically Beckmesserian.

There is no evading the fact that Britten’s episodic second Act lacks
dramatic momentum. The pastiche, albeit clever and effortless, serves to
flatter its creator’s facility rather than to further the drama (the former
is foregrounded by, for example, the harpist’s visibility in the wings during
the lute songs). The lengthy sequence of theatrical rituals and dances, while
flamboyantly stylistic, are ultimately static and somewhat sterile. In this
context, the villagers’ vegetable mosaic, designed to celebrate regal
fruitfulness and profligacy, is appropriately humdrum.

Yet, Jones’ presentation of the masque of Time and Concord is, as
rudimentary moon and sun are heaved aloft from the wings, elementary but
honest; similarly, Lucy Burge’s choreography produces stylised but touching
performances from dancers Lake Laoutaris-Smith and Giulia Pazzaglia. The choral
dances which end the Act are vigorous and energising, Spence et al
matching the lusty leaps and bounds of the professional athletes.

Off-stage or on-stage, the ROH chorus are splendidly resplendent and
resonant. The idolatrous ‘Green leaves are we’ chorus which permeates the
score is heartfelt and warming. Conductor Paul Daniel is well-served by his
woodwind players, whose expressive nuances communicates the underlying drama
with virtuosity and insight, just as the whole instrumental ensemble conjures
both bright majesty in the scenes of public ceremony and dark unrest when their
dynamic surges represented the inner turbulences of the troubled Queen.

Jones has totally captured the antagonistic energies of this opera. Unease
and imbalance characterise both dynamic relationships and structural
organisation, as public and private are opposed but never reconciled. Condemned
as ‘not a Great Britten’ at its first appearance, Jones convinces us that
– despite its flaws – this is a Glorious Gloriana.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Earl of Essex: Toby Spence; Henry Cuffe: Benjamin Bevan; Lord
Mountjoy: Mark Stone; Elizabeth I: Susan Bullock; Sir Walter Raleigh: Clive
Bayley; Sir Robert Cecil: Jeremy Carpenter; Recorder of Norwich: Jeremy White;
Spirit of the Masque: Andrew Tortise; Time: Lake Laoutaris-Smith’ Concord:
Ciulia Pazzaglia; Penelope Lady Rich: Kate Royal; Frances Devereux: Patricia
Bardon; Blind Ballad Singer: Brindley Sherratt; Conductor: Paul Daniel;
Director: Richard Jones; Designs: Ultz; Lighting Design: Mimi Jordan Sherin;
Choreography: Lucy Burge. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Thursday 20th June 2013

image_description=Susan Bullock as Queen Elizabeth I [Photo © ROH / Clive Barda]
product_title=Britten’s Gloriana, Covent Garden
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Susan Bullock as Queen Elizabeth I

Photos © ROH / Clive Barda