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Benjamin Britten at 100 Part VIII: Initial failure of Gloriana obscured brilliant operatic craft

By John Terauds on April 14, 2013

A scene from the premiere of Benjamin Britten's Gloriana in June, 1953 (Royal Opera House photo).
A scene from the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana in June, 1953 (Royal Opera House photo).

Since first seeing Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana on the BBC in the early 1990s, the opera written for the coronation festivities of Queen Elizabeth II has become one of my favourites. It is psychologically complex (as is so much of Britten’s work), but it is also filled with little bits of entertainment.

The opera went down as one of Britten’s few disasters.

As the title indicates, the opera is about Elizabeth I. Normally something written for a coronation would be full of pomp, pageantry and cheerleading for the incomparable gifts of wise and generous monarchs (think La clemenza di Tito). But Britten, ever ready to peel back façades, brings us a conflicted Elizabeth I.

She is getting old and the weight of sacrifice and compromise and sheer survival as the leader of a sometimes fractious kingdom has taken its toll. She is beloved but alone, and must accept this as her fate.

That’s the backstage view. What her court and subjects see is the imperturbable, mighty Gloriana.

Now imagine Great Britain 60 years ago.

The empire was falling away, bit by bit. Several cities, including London, still had craters where people had once lived and worked, thanks to World War II bombs and rockets. Tens of thousands of men and women and children were recovering from loss, injury and displacement.

It came as a surprise to find out food was still being rationed in Britain in the early 1950s.

This is hardly the basis for a flag-waving, crown-curtsying mood.

That was until the politicians had the bright idea of declaring a New Elizabethan Age — something that had Britons greeting their young queen with the sort of misdirected hope for a better future that ensures everything but a happily-ever-after.

But, for the moment, everything was about the second coming of a great Elizabethan era.

In many ways, Britten was a natural for an opera celebrating the echoes of the 16th century in the 20th. He loved Early Music and knew how to translate its broad outlines into a Modern idiom.

He had a brilliant librettist in William Plomer, a transplanted South African author, poet and editor 10 years his senior (and, here’s a little bit of trivia, Plomer was one of Ian Fleming’s editors — Goldfinger was dedicated to him). The source material was Litton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History.

The tragic part didn’t set off any alarm bells. And, after reading Robert Hewison’s essay “‘Happy were he’: Benjamin Britten and the Gloriana story,” in Britten’s Gloriana: Essays and Sources (edited by Paul Banks in 1993 for the Aldeburgh Studies in Music series), I also know that Britten had a private sit-down with Elizabeth and Phillip to take them through the whole opera well ahead of time.

So what prompted Lord Harewood, who was director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, at the time, to write in his memoirs that opening night on June 8, 1953, as “one of the great disasters of operatic history”?

Well, he did exaggerate a bit, as the set didn’t fall on anyone, nor did anything else go wrong  technically or musically.

Hewison argues that it was because the wrong people were present at the premiere: they were not opera fans or people who loved the music of Benjamin Britten, but politicians and dignitaries both English and from abroad, who probably didn’t go to the opera frequently and who may not have been familiar with new music styles.

Then there’s the issue of a warm-weather show in a non-air-conditioned space.

Hewison quotes the memoirs of Lord Drogheda, a major London opera patron and future chairman of the Royal Opera House:

Long remembered it was, but as a fiasco. The music was not remotely difficult to music-lovers, but much of the audience were not in the habit of attending opera at all. Gloriana was quite long, the evening was warm, the intervals seemed endless, stick-up collars grew limp, and well before the end a restlessness set in. ‘Boriana’ was on everyone’s lips. Most distressing was that in one scene the elderly Queen Elizabeth I removed her wig from her head and was revealed as almost bald: and this was taken, for no good reason at all, as being in bad taste.

Plomer was still bitter in a 1965 interview in London Magazine:

Were these chatterers interested in anything beyond a plenteous twinkling of tiaras and recognizable wearers of stars and ribbons in the auditorium? Did they perhaps expect some kind of loud and rumbustious amalgam of Land of Hope and Glory and Merrie England, with catchy tunes and deafening choruses to reproduce the vulgar and blatant patriotism of the Boer War period? If so, they didn’t get it.

Plomer’s account is a nice little reality check for anyone who thinks there was a more golden age for classical music and opera in the not too distant past.

And, as for Gloriana, it is getting a brand-new production at the Royal Opera House for its 60th anniversary this summer, and people’s appreciation for it keeps growing.

There is a great website — Britten 100 — that lists concerts and associated events connected with Britten’s centenary here. From it, I see that the Courtly Dances from Gloriana are getting dozens of performances. There will be a concert presentation of the full opera in Sidney at the end of May, a youth performance in Aldeburgh in August, and concert presentations in Sweden and Germany in the fall.

The Royal Opera House production gets a live-to-cinema broadcast on June 24 in the U.K., but I don’t see it on the Canadian Cineplex schedule.

Here’s Act I, scene i from the 1984 revival of a 1966 English National Opera production by Colin Graham. Elizabeth is sung by Sarah Walker. Essex is Anthony Rolfe Johnson:

The Courtly Dances appear at the end of Act II, and are hardly as jolly as they are meant to be (Britten had hired Imogen Holst to help him with the opera, and sent her off to research Elizabethan dances to make sure he was getting them right):

And the final scene of Act III:

John Terauds

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