Not very glorious Gloriana

22 Jun

The Royal Opera House’s performance of Gloriana on 20th June was my third visit to the opera (the others were the old ENO production with Sarah Walker and Opera North’s with Josephine Barstow).  It didn’t disturb my view that the first night audience probably got it about right. There’s an idea that it’s an unjustly neglected masterpiece wrecked by a frosty reception at its opening night by people who didn’t like opera anyway.  Well, lots of operas have survived disastrous first nights but, even though the subsequent performances were allegedly more successful, Gloriana has struggled.  There’ve only been two productions in the UK before this one (only Paul Bunyan and Owen Wingrave have done worse) and, while those were successes, this new production was the first performance here in 20 years and, if the opera is that good, surely it would have happened more often.  And there is only one recording available.  And, after this, I think the reason’s clear: overall and despite some good things, it’s a failure.

The problems were all too apparent in this performance.  William Plomer’s libretto is uneasy in its mock Elizabethan, its silly heroics and a diction that sounds artificial, like some sort 1950s idea of what they would have said.  It struck me that nothing dates more than a previous generation’s view of history.  Then there is the uneasy mixture of styles and locations, giving it almost a pageant or vaudeville feel.  In the Norwich scene absolutely nothing happens.  Lady Essex and Penelope Rich are introduced too late and have little opportunity to make much impression and the ballad singer’s scene just seems to be an odd invention.  Dramatically it doesn’t hold together.

There are, however, two really wonderful scenes – those for Elizabeth and Essex: the first with its eroticism and the second with its regret and bitterness.  The court scene at the end of Act II is enjoyable and, in the right performance, the picture at the end of the Queen left on her own can be striking and moving.  And, there is some glorious music and fine choral opportunities.  But each time that I’ve seen it, I’ve found my mind wandering, wondering when something interesting is actually going to happen.

I felt that Richard Jones’s production actually emphasised these problems while diminishing some of the more interesting parts of the opera.  He sets it in the 1950s with the young Queen Elizabeth II coming to see a performance by what looks like local amateurs.  There was more than a hint of the community of Albert Herring. Schoolchildren come on with cards telling your where each scene is set.  We can see backstage as stage hands change the scene, offstage musicians and prompters play and there is the whole apparatus of a performance.  We aren’t meant to take it too seriously – one of the silly horses from Robert le Diable is clearly performing in the joust.  At the end, Elizabeth II leaves and the curtains open and she and the old Elizabeth I look at each other.  And so this is yet another performance “about” the opera and the time of its performance.  What this says to me is that the director doesn’t feel that there is anything interesting in the opera itself and so he tells you about the making of it.  Didn’t we see this in Donna del Lago and isn’t one production of this sort per season enough?

As ever, it’s a precise piece of work, but also a very cold one.  There wasn’t much tenderness or eroticism in the lute scene and for many of the others it wasn’t easy to tell whether Jones was mocking the characters, the opera or 1950s amateur dramatics.  I felt that the end, which resulted in a gurgle of pleasure from the audience, undercut one of the major premises of the opera – the lonely fading away of the old queen.  It certainly didn’t do anything to rescue the opera.  Indeed, Jones seemed to feel that the opera is simply a mildly interesting celebratory pageant?

At least there was huge pleasure to be got from the musical side.  Paul Daniel conducted the piece for Opera North and obviously knows it well.  He got outstanding playing from the orchestra and superb choral singing.  The cast was great with Toby Spence ideal casting as the impetuous Leicester, Mark Stone great as Mountjoy, Clive Bayley a strong Raleigh, Patricia Bardon committed and intelligent as Lady Essex and Kate Royal very fine indeed as Penelope Rich.  Andrew Tortise as the Spirit of the Masque was also really outstanding and Brindley Sherratt excellent as the Ballad Singer.  And there was a towering performance from Susan Bullock as Elizabeth I – her steely voice with its bright, clear top sounded absolutely right for the role and made an interesting contrast to rather darker tones of Sarah Walker and Josephine Barstow.  Every word was crystal clear.  For much of the time, however, I kept thinking what a wonderful Lady Billows she would make, how there were more than the makings of a fine cast of Albert Herring here, and how I’d much rather be seeing that.

So, for me, a disappointment and an evening that convinced me that I really wouldn’t mind much if I never saw the opera again.  The audience reaction at the end suggested I was in a minority but a number had left at the interval.  I’d love to know if any people who were present at that first run, sixty years ago, came to see it here and what they thought then and think now.

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