OPERA / A right royal progress: Julian Rushton on a timely revival of Benjamin Britten's long-neglected Coronation opera, Gloriana

Click to follow
Once upon a time opera companies sponsored by a County Council would have re-routed Elizabeth I's royal progress to the appropriate city, in this case Nottingham instead of Norwich. No such historical licence, nor any spurious attempt at topicality, mars Opera North's splendid new production of Britten's Gloriana. Phyllida Lloyd's direction and Anthony Ward's designs present the grandeur of the Queen and the squalor of political intrigue in handsome period costumes on an austere background: a front-stage corridor serves for the outdoor scenes, leaving detail to the imagination, while the full set is a panelled chamber surrounded by raised passages, with a rear balcony. These three levels help distinguish the choral groups, permit eavesdropping, and form a musicians' gallery. Huge rear doors make for magnificent entries and exits (Gloriana first appears framed in gold, an inspired image later matched by arrogant Essex astride a golden horse). They also reveal the vision of Essex before his execution and, as glory fades into silence, they open as gates of death for the bald Queen, exiting with touching dignity in a night-gown (or shroud?). She leaves behind a sumptuous empty dress, potent metaphor of the opera's central question: which was the true Gloriana, the woman or the Queen?

The charm of the Norwich scene lies in the Choral Dances, tautly performed by the excellent chorus. This tribute to the composer's native East Anglia began with promising cameos of local worthies (Bruce Budd, Paul Nilon), but Kate Flatt's choreography of Concord and Time disappointed, and the visual climax, historically justified, was a violent cloudburst (the umbrellas are the only anachronism). Elsewhere the spectacle was enhanced by on-stage performers, notably the three trumpets of the opening scene and the resourceful court drummer at the Whitehall ball in which Lady Essex (touchingly played by Yvonne Burnett) is cruelly humiliated.

Paul Daniel conducts the almost bewilderingly diverse score with skill and vivacity. I could not get rid of the feeling that Gloriana goes on too long, without containing much that can safely be jettisoned, but the audience's enthusiasm suggested a more positive response. The minor characters are two-dimensional, even the spirited Lady Penelope Rich (Susan Chilcott) and the men around the Queen, gallant Mountjoy, sly Cecil and bumbling Raleigh (ably sung by Karl Morgan Daymond, Eric Roberts, and Clive Bayley). The only developed characters are Elizabeth and Essex, and both singers rose to the challenge. Essex's impetuous ambition flowed from the lithe and expressive tenor of Thomas Randle, a vivid depiction of the plausible bounder. But the star, of course, was Elizabeth: Josephine Barstow's voice has grown lovelier, and she uses it faultlessly to range from tenderness to grandeur; while her acting - serene, impassioned, venomous, by turns supple, then stiff with arthritis - is of equal status. A tremendous performance. How about filming this Gloriana on location? When such a spectacle is matched by the musical performance, the Cinderella among Britten's operas has a chance to come into its own.

In rep at the Grand Theatre, Leeds (0532 459351) to 26 Jan, then at the Royal Opera House, Covent Gdn (071- 240 1066) 7, 10 Feb and on tour