I can’t imagine anyone was ready for a Tudor drama to be set to such a fresh yet beautiful contemporary scoring but in 2013 it seems the tide has turned
Sixty years ago, when Gloriana, Benjamin Britten’s opera telling the story of Elizabeth I’s relationship with Essex and her struggle to keep a stronghold over plotting adversaries, was premiered at the ROH for the Queen and Prince Philip it received mixed reviews.
I can’t imagine anyone was ready for a Tudor drama to be set to such a fresh yet beautiful contemporary scoring but in 2013 it seems the tide has turned. There’s nothing our ears haven’t been bombarded with in the interim, so Britten’s sonorous, splendid music – with some surprisingly beautiful passages – filled the Royal Opera House and even moved my best friend to tears.
Written for the Coronation, it has been revived for its diamond anniversary – and Britten’s centenary. What better way to present it, then, than set at the original 1950s production with a visiting young Queen Elizabeth who comes backstage to meet the cast?
Richard Jones presents us with a time portal of history and only Jones with the designer Ultz could have pulled this off in such a clever and multi-layered way. Its many dimensions drive home how 16th century history resonates with today’s House of Windsor. The Tudor costumes were colourful, almost cartoonlike but it gave buoyancy to this dark plot of intrigue. I liked this Neo-Tudor lesson in history. It was a visual feast.
Best of British
The best of British were up on the ROH stage, led by the powerful Susan Bullock whose immersion into this complex and demanding role was engrossing, heightening a mischievous and emotional side to the sovereign. She was particularly touching as she grew older and we saw the monarch shockingly bald, fragile yet still proud.
Toby Spence as Essex sang with beauty and a renewed strength. His lute songs were a scene stealer. He was on top form and it was very amusing to see him and Bullock being put through their paces in an exhausting dance routine full of jumps at the court ball.
The real strengths in this opera lay in the sublime ensemble singing from the quartet consisting of a mesmerising Patricia Bardon, Mark Stone, Spence and the sublime Kate Royal as Lady Rich. Why this beautiful soprano with such a unique tone is not a global superstar is a mystery to me and it depresses me that our senses are instead bombarded by the more-than-mediocre Katherine Jenkins instead. Kate Royal is the answer; record companies please note.
A special mention must also go to the rich-toned and jovial Ben Bevan who made his ROH debut as Henry Cuffe; Carol Rowlands’ hilarious characterisation of a gossiping housewife; Andrew Tortoise’s luxurious Spirit of the Masque; as well as to the magnificent Royal Opera House chorus who held this opera together with grandiose singing and superb diction. They are a hugely talented ensemble producing a wonderful sound with plenty of characters within to keep you entertained.
I certainly think conductor Paul Daniel should be tipped for the next birthday honours list for pulling this overlooked masterwork off with precision, mastery and a cool head. Gloriana is a glorious triumph.