CLASSICAL MUSIC / An authentic souvenir of Britten: 40 years ago critics rubbished Britten's Gloriana. The first ever recording suggests they were wrong, argues Bayan Northcott

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The Independent Culture
SOME time during the early 1940s, those aspiring young composers Michael Tippett and Benjamin Britten felt close enough to confide in each other their future hopes. As Tippett has recalled it, Britten declared: 'Look, I'm probably an anachronism. I am an opera composer. I can't help it, even if it's an anachronism in this century. Consequently I may have to make my own opera group in order to do what I want to do. But I shall write many, many operas and that is how it will be.' Since this conversation evidently took place before the triumph of Peter Grimes in 1945 and not long after what Britten then felt to be the failure of his only previous piece for the musical theatre, Paul Bunyan, his absolute certainty seems all the more remarkable.

But then, how could he simultaneously stigmatise himself - with whatever degree of ambivalence or irony - as an anachronism? He cannot have been seriously daunted by doctrinaire Modernism's periodic proclamation of the 'death of opera'. He was well aware of the century's vital new developments: of the expressionist concentration of Berg's Wozzeck, the monumental objectivity of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, the manic eclecticism of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; aware too of the possibilities of more populist sources such as the Brecht-Weill shows or Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. True, the operatic public, unaware as yet of Janacek, still tended to stick at Puccini and Richard Strauss. But Britten's aesthetic distance even from those composers did not stop him appropriating a technical trick or two.

What he was possibly attempting to justify, all the same, was the realisation that his true starting point lay in a pre-Modern, even pre-Wagnerian tradition: in the concept of number opera, with its clear-cut contrasts of recitative, aria and ensemble, as it had evolved out of the 18th century culminating in the power, economy and directness of that apparently outmoded master, Verdi. So, although Grimes concerned a potentially Wozzeck-like protagonist and borrowed more than a little from Porgy, it was largely projected through schemes adapted from early 19th-century Italian opera: a storm scene, a mad scene; scenes with sounds of worship or revelry 'off'. And classical stock forms continued to sustain the next two operas which Britten duly composed for his own group: The Rape of Lucretia (1946), and Albert Herring (1947) - stylised with Stravinskian severity in the one; wickedly burlesqued in the other.

Only in Billy Budd (1951) did he begin to blur or replace such received forms with systematically generated continuities of his own, more redolent of the obsessive concerns of his later operas. But before this evolution had gone far, he allowed himself just one more indulgence in traditional grand opera - his most 'anachronistic' of all. Gloriana arose out of a discussion of why England had no 'national' opera like The Mastersingers, Boris Godunov or The Bartered Bride - whereupon Lord Harewood told Britten, 'You had better write one,' proposed Lytton Strachey's Elizabeth and Essex as a subject and got the opera commissioned by Covent Garden for the 1953 coronation.

Yet it might be questioned whether the slightly spurious 'new Elizabethan' mood of that year really matched the authentic fervour behind the great 19th-century national operas. And launching Gloriana to a royal gala audience of bored dignitaries proved almost fatal. Not until Sadler's Wells mounted a new production in 1966 did the work begin to edge into the repertoire. Now, fully four decades later, the complete opera has at last been released in a fine first recording - rather piquantly, from Welsh National Opera - to an England preoccupied with very different issues from those of 1953 (to say nothing of the more recent home life of our own dear queen. . .).

What becomes clearer with the chance at last to study in detail this least familiar of Britten's operas is how mightily he and his librettist, William Plomer, strove within the perilously tight schedule of their commission, to achieve a genuinely national appeal without vulgarity. Those critics, for instance, who complained that Britten had relinquished the integrated act-structures of his earlier operas for a mere historical pageant failed to acknowledge the precedent of Boris Godunov and the way in which Britten, like Mussorgsky, used a discontinuous, tableau- like structure the more effectively to assemble a whole view: contrasts of individual and crowd, of high and low society, of drama and divertissement, which no single, linear narrative could realistically link.

Again, Plomer and Britten were too little praised for steering between the 'stockbrokers' Tudor' of Merrie England, which many of that coronation audience might well have preferred, and the sterility of mere Elizabethan pastiche - constructing instead, out of a skilful play of allusions, a plausible impression of the period that yet remained unmistakably their own work, just as Wagner had evoked old Nuremberg in The Mastersingers. Yet more than in any other Britten opera, the presiding spirit remained Verdi: in the projecting of the central plot as a struggle between private affection and public duty, in the often bluff, poster-like scoring, in the simple, even naive juxtaposition of set forms. One might even speculate that, had Visconti's celebrated rethink of Don Carlos reached Covent Garden before Gloriana instead of five years after, Britten's press might have proved significantly more understanding.

Admittedly, compared with the inner torments of Verdi's great characters, there is little doubt from the start that Gloriana will always subjugate her private yearnings as a woman to her public duties as a queen. In the end Plomer develops the story of her romance with Essex less to generate drama than to reveal different aspects of her character as an individual, and, even more, as an emblem. As a result, the opera unfolds like nothing else in Britten's output: the gradual elaboration of a single historical character to encompass, as it were, an entire national culture. And it drew from him some correspondingly exceptional music. The recurrent greeting song, 'Green leaves are we, Red rose our golden Queen' - with its finely arched opening phrase overtaken in potentially endless points of imitation - epitomises a penchant for ornate contrapuntal textures rarely found elsewhere in Britten. As for the equally rare, and initially much-criticised lapse from song into sustained spoken melodrama in the opera's epilogue after the queen's climactic signing of Essex's death warrant, its aptness to her final transformation from personage into icon now seems obvious.

All of which would be reason enough to rush out and by the new recording even if it were indifferent. On the whole it is very good and, at its appointed moments - Elizabeth's strangely archaic prayer at the end of Act One; the Act Three moment when Essex's wife comes to plead for his life - inescapably moving. Josephine Barstow may not always command quite the vocal weight for Elizabeth, nor Philip Langridge the ideal focus for Essex, but both more than compensate in musico-dramatic intelligence. The off-stage chorus of the opening tournament may be placed a little distantly in a generally decent recording; Sir Charles Mackerras' vital grasp of the score's pacing may momentarily slacken in the ballad- singing scene of Essex's rebellion. But then the opera itself, with its sometimes abruptly carpentered dramaturgy and occasional lapses into bald musical formulae, is hardly consistent in integration or inspiration. What truly great opera - even by Wagner; even, dare it be asked, by Mozart - ever is? Maybe the very richness of the toughest repertory pieces could be said to depend in some strange way upon their fractures, latencies and loose ends; and, in the theatre at least, only the small or the second-rate is ever perfect.

Gloriana: Argo 440 213-2 (two CDs)