What an amazing show. Having seen it twice now, I think this may turn out to be the revelation of Britten's centenary year - not just this great production, but that Gloriana is a viable, and actually exceptionally beautiful opera. One hopes on the strength of this showing it will get more outings in the other productions on offer in the other companies and at the very least a revival of this one. (It seems to get revived approximately every decade in the UK: ENO 1984, WNO 1992, ON 2002, ROH 2013)
Gloriana's rarity in the opera house makes one suspicious that it is going to be distinctly second rate, but an actual encounter with the work constantly confounds expectations; in fact there are delights and surprises at every turn. It was not successful during its première in 1953 and famously Queen Elizabeth II was not very taken with it (it was written for her coronation), but now with the benefit of 60 years distance in time the reasons for its original failure seems uninteresting and unimportant. Instead, in the context of his entire career, we see that it comes at the centre of Britten's most fertile period, and also that he does so many things here that he chose not to do again in his operas. It emerges not as a homage to Elizabeth, but as a homage and love letter to England and it's people, via the music of this country. A bewilderingly wide array of English music is touched upon - we get references to mediaeval music, Tudor/Elizabethan music including Tallis and Byrd, Dowland, Purcell, and there are even Holstian and Vaughan Williamsesque resonances, although perhaps only because of their debts to the aforementioned early masters. It's not just "Brittenised" pastiches either - this music seems to be infused in every bar of the score, such that the whole edifice seems to grow out of and is saturated with this old music. Orchestral colours are bright, light, tinkling, layered, open, sonorous. The music has a genuine grandeur without irony or bombast, humour without bitterness, lyrical sweetness without darkness. It's as exuberant and generous as Britten ever got, and it's surprising that it's so convincing given what fruits self denial and Apollonian restraint also brought him and suggests a path not travelled. After this opera, only A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960) touches on similar ground, though is already much more restrained.
Richard Jones sets the production in the 1950's but as a stage within a stage which is in Elizabethan era dress, presumably intended as some fictional early performance of the work at Aldeburgh or somewhere slightly provincial like that. I can hear the groans already - that's two opera clichés in one go: 1950's, and a stage within a stage. BUT(!) it never interferes with the dramatic content of the music, and simultaneously makes us reflect on what Britten was trying to do here. At first you wonder what it's actually adding, but soon we realise that Jones is not taking the piss out of the piece, and actually is rendering Britten's stylisation more understandable - we're not seeing echt Elizabethan drama, we're seeing Elizabethan drama filtered through the eyes of 1950's England. This is of course true of any opera not set contemporaneously to the period in which it was written (e.g. Donizetti is "Elizabethan" through the eyes of the 1830s) but it's particularly meaningful to draw attention to this in this opera, because Britten is actively doing this in the music (in a way that say Donizetti just isn't attempting at all) - we're seeing Elizabethan music through the eyes of a 1950's composer, and the libretto too is "1950's Elizabethan". What I like about this staging is that it constantly leads us back to Britten's music, highlighting its beauty, its place in history, its purpose in being written, and intended effect, while giving it air to breathe in its originally intended context. It's done with a lot of love, and for once Jones' obsession with the 1950's is a poignant and entirely apt addition to the opera at hand.
Additionally, we're given beautiful vignettes of England in 1953 - the sets and costumes for once actually capture the era's drabness without caricature or cartoonishness. The Elizabethan costumes really look like the ones from films and stage of that time, the harpist plays a harp that looks like its from the era. (Incidentally it's a lovely touch having the harp on stage for the harp/lute song - the instrument is so often central to Britten's sonority and even compositional method - no one in the 20th century understood or wrote for it better.) Britten's obsession with pre-pubescent boys manifests itself in this opera by Britten's inclusion of boy-pages with spoken lines (well you knew he was going to include them somewhere, and there's only the tiniest bit for treble choir this time!). Happily Jones doesn't dwell on the perversity of this aspect of Britten's life - we know about that already, it's been done to death, and it's not relevant to this opera. Jones has the boys (all of identical height as a reflection of Britten's ultra stringent requirements) prominently holding up the name of the place where every scene takes place. It's enough, and actually genuinely helpful on a dramatic level.
The portrait of Elizabeth I as a real woman, powerful, loving, yet flawed, is fascinating. She has fun at the dance, flirts with Essex, and cruelly humiliates Essex's wife Frances, but you also see that she cares deeply for her subjects and is a woman of great standing who is very aware of her duty and largely sacrifices herself to it. She has a heart shaped headpiece during the masque when she says that she is a sovereign of love, and you believe her, so don't judge her later actions.
This is Susan Bullock's show, and she is magnetic. The identification with and commitment to the character is palpable in every phrase and motion- you see her living through Elizabeth's conflicts, joys, pains, with nothing half baked or overdone. Vocally she's in control, and extremely expressive within the range that her sometimes harsh vocalising allows - there's the occasional wonderful piano, but mainly what's impressive is that the intention is always so clear. Her spoken declamation and singing in the final scene is electrifying, poignant, sad, dignified, and very moving.
Toby Spence takes on the "Pears" role of Essex very well, singing his lovely harp/lute aria with great beauty - very pleasing to hear him on such good form after his recent throat surgeries. Other than the central role, this really is an ensemble opera and there are no weak links - Benjamin Bevan, Mark Stone, Clive Bayley, Jeremy Carpenter, Kate Royal, Patricia Bardon, Brindley Sherratt all are obviously committed dramatically and in very good voice.
Conductor Paul Daniel and the ROH orchestra conspire together to give a revelatory and very loving reading of this score that brings to light the extraordinary wealth of Britten's aural imagination at this stage in his career. Textures are precise and sensitive, the humour is rib-tickling, the score's understated lyricism and grandeur beautifully rendered. The ROH chorus play a huge role in this opera and are in their element here - you can't imagine any other opera chorus being able to do it better.
Well worth going to see, one of the best things the ROH have done this season.