John Piper made the point when he designed the original cover for the published score, featuring the motif of an empty dress; and Phyllida Lloyd's new production for Opera North makes it again - spectacularly - in the closing scene, when one of Elizabeth's dresses is wheeled on like a jewel-encrusted tank to claim the foreground while the Queen herself - an old, bald woman in a white shift - creeps backstage and opens the door to paradise. Death as escape. It's a profoundly poignant moment, beautifully envisaged by Lloyd and her designer Anthony Ward; and to see it is to be reminded why Gloriana had such a chilly reception when it first appeared 40 years ago.
This, after all, was an opera commissioned for the coronation of Elizabeth II. It first played to a royal gala audience expecting something Merrie England-ish, not a dark essay on the burdens of office; and the legendary failure of that night has dogged the piece ever since. Despite periodic revivals of interest and ENO stagings which drew critical assurances that at last its time had come, Gloriana never took the place in repertory that was expected of it. Then, last year, a premiere recording was finally issued by Decca. It starred Josephine Barstow, singing the title role blind because she had never done it on stage; and it is around Barstow that this production has been built, with remarkable results.
Elizabeth is a juggernaut of a part that demands a soprano with contralto depths, a powerful dramatic presence and the ability to hold the stage for long periods - all of which Barstow manages to do heroically despite a voice that isn't as big or lustrous as it was. When Sarah Walker took the part at ENO she did it like a pantomime dame, with much slapping of thighs. Barstow too goes for swagger, but more subtly, like a game Edwardian dowager. You feel, as you should, that this is a woman playing a role: to be a queen is a lifelong performance. But this one performs with absolute conviction, even to the point when she resolves to sign her lover's death warrant. The rest of her life shrivels into a timeless haze, squeezed into a sequence of brief tableaux in the opera's final scene.
The remainder of the cast is lightweight compared with the recording, which gathered a group of exceptional English singers. But Susan Chilcott (Lady Rich) and Karl Morgan Daymond (Mountjoy) are memorable. Thomas Randle as Essex (a role written for Peter Pears, but an untypically low- lying one) is a more committed womaniser than Pears can have been, tempering his passion with nicely calculated gestures - including a glance at Elizabeth to make sure she's listening to his lute songs. The voice isn't so full with lyricism as that of Philip Langridge on disc, but Randle does make an enticingly youthful, racy, exotic creature.
Exoticism is the quality that Phyllida Lloyd exploits to reclaim the Tudor court from the abyss of doublet-and-hose costume drama. The colours of this court are black and gold; its courtiers dress like gilded gypsies with to-the-shoulder hair and earrings. And although the court is meanly populated (Opera North will have to recruit some extra chorus when the production goes to Covent Garden, or it will look like a 16th-century house-party), Lloyd is good at fabricating glamour on a budget - not least in Act I where Elizabeth is carried on and off by palanquin, half icon, half botanic specimen, swaying slowly with the movement of the tightly packed men supporting her. A stunning tableau that responds to some stunning music.
Not all the problems are solved so well. Gloriana is an uneven score: at best (the Thames-side quartet, the death-warrant scene) it ranks with the cream of Britten's output, at worst (the ballad-singer's scene) it is irredeemably fragmented. But broadly speaking Lloyd and Paul Daniel (who conducts magnificently, painting orchestral colours of gaudy brilliance) prove once and for all the viability of this opera as a repertory piece: something more than a piece d'occasion. Taken with the Decca disc, this staging is the most effective operatic rehabilitation this country has seen in years. If you can't see it in Leeds, don't miss it on tour.
Smetana's The Two Widows, playing over Christmas at ENO, was also meant as a rehabilitative exercise. The piece is virtually unknown here, although it has one of Smetana's most vigorously tuneful European (as opposed to Czech National) scores; and its presciently modern storyline (a romantic comedy of love in riper years, The Golden Girls with music) should have been good Seasonal Fayre. But while David Pountney's production is good at the romance, it fails with the comedy. The funny lines come out forced; and they're not very funny in this translation.
Czech is a difficult language to recreate in English because
it tends toward foursquare rhythms, with the emphasis upfront (da-da, da-da) where English prefers it pushed back (da- da, da-da); and The Two Widows is especially tricky because its score is a succession of polkas the rhythms of which mirror the thrust of Czech exactly (and insistently). All ENO offers as a solution is a banal display of empty banter that reduces Smetana's most impassioned moments to the level of bad Gilbert and Sullivan.
More positively, there is affecting singing from Anne-Marie Owens, a heavy and rather veiled mezzo in a soprano role - but the voice is strong where strength is needed. There are also two world-class leads from Marie McLaughlin and David Rendall. But Adam Fischer, conducting, gets no semblance of ensemble between pit and stage. The action takes place in a baffling set: imagine the concrete arch of La Defense transplanted into a cornfield from Oklahoma]. The corn sheaves repeatedly fall over, the chorus repeatedly stand them up again, and there is a hyperactive dog that steals the show, simply by being a free spirit in a (more or less) controlled environment.
'Gloriana': Leeds (0532 459351) Fri, and 13, 26 Jan; then Nottingham, Manchester, Norwich, Hull, Covent Gdn. 'Two Widows': Thurs & Sat; in rep to Mar (071-836 3161).
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