Classical review: Richard Jones's revelatory ROH revival of Britten's underrated Gloriana

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Gloriana, Royal Opera House, London

Gloriana was prompted by the suggestion that Britten should write a piece which could stand as a musical expression of national identity, but this unpretentious pageant-opera for the 1953 coronation has suffered from the weight of expectation placed on it.

Though its paying audiences were enthusiastic, the critics didn’t like it any more than the royals and their courtiers did at the premiere. So it passed into limbo, with just one production in the next 59 years. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, the view has crystallised that it’s not much good. 

The conclusion I draw from Richard Jones’s production, conducted by Paul Daniel, is that in 1953 people just weren’t ready for a work which chimes so neatly with our post-modern consciousness. Jones and his designer Ultz have given the Elizabethan story another layer by presenting it firmly in the time it was written, as a Fifties parish-hall performance to which the local mayor invites the new Queen Elizabeth.

The Fifties look is perfectly caught in the insipid colours of the day, as is the way neatly-uniformed schoolboys are enlisted to announce changes of locale; the brightly-coloured Tudor events come across like the naive cod-history so dear to the heart of education minister Gove.

But William Plomer’s libretto abets Britten’s music in undermining that cod-history: the pair may have been influenced by Lytton Strachey’s psychological assessment of the first Elizabeth, and their music-drama may acquire a dark resonance as the tragedy of Essex shades into the queen’s own demise, but you feel that Britten was less serious about those turbulent Tudors than he was about his vocal and orchestral games with pastiche-Dowland and reinvented court dances.

The pleasure of the piece lies in the music’s unexpected flashes of beauty, in its ironical foreshadowings of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and above all in the community masque which Lucy Burge’s choreography and Ultz’s visual wit make both comic and touching. And what performances we get: Susan Bullock is an awe-inspiring Gloriana - imperious, perverse, tormented – while Toby Spence, as Essex, has regained all his pristine vocal lustre. Mark Stone’s Mountjoy, Clive Bayley’s Raleigh, and Andrew Tortise’s Spirit of the Masque are each outstanding.  

This has been a notable week for Britten’s operas. After ENO’s magnificent Death in Venice and Aldeburgh’s amazing Grimes on the Beach, Covent Garden has now shown that Gloriana is, if not a great work, certainly one of the most intriguing in the canon.

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