A new recording of Britten’s Gloriana is to be welcomed, even when it’s less than perfect. It’s an unusual work for Britten. It’s very grand. The orchestra is large and the music doesn’t seem to be as transparent and detailed as much of his work. This is especially true in Act 1 where I almost wondered whether Britten was sending up “grand opera”. It’s also a grand opera sort of plot. The libretto is based on Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex and deals with the late life romance between the queen and the young Robert Devereux, earl of Essex and deputy in Ireland. It has some fine moments; notably the lute songs in Act 2 and the choral dances in Act 2. Act 3 is also dramatically quite effective; dealing with Essex’ abortive rebellion and execution. Curiously, in the final scene, Britten resorts to a lot of spoken dialogue, as he does briefly with Balstrode’s admonition in Peter Grimes. It’s almost as if he has no musical vocabulary for the highest emotional states; a sort of anti-Puccini.
The production is by Richard Jones and he is clearly trying to link the coronation of the second Elizabeth to the reign of the first. Sometimes he is quite effective. Sometimes not so much. The framework is a “play within a play” (null points). In this case it’s set in a 1953 Coronation Hall and we open with the mayor and associated dignitaries meeting the new queen in silent mime followed by a backwards tableau of monarchs from George VI to James I. James II is curiously missing and, stranger still, James I is wearing a kilt! The names of the various dynasties are spelt out by a row of 1950s schoolboys holding up letters. This is a device that will be used throughout to announce the location of each scene.
If it were just a framework I could just about live with it. Costumed supers acting as stagehands, director etc is only mildly annoying. It gets worse though. Jones can’t seem to make up his mind about whether he is in the Royal Opera House or a village hall. Some scenes are staged with courtly splendour where others are made to look like amateur theatricals. In the Norwich scene for example the chorus look like they have stepped out of The Archers and then put “Tudor” hats on. Similarly, Essex’ ragged band of apprentices in Act 3 are wearing school uniform and paper hats. That said, the courtly scenes are done rather well and kudos to the singers for learning how to execute the various, quite energetic, courtly dances.
The performances are generally good. Toby Spence is very fine as Essex. Jeremy Carpenter is a suave Cecil and Clive Bayley a very solid Raleigh. Good work too from Mark Stone as Montjoy, Patricia Bardon as Lady Essex and Brindley Sherratt as the Blind Ballad Singer. There’s also a brief, too brief, role for the lovely Kate Royal as the impetuous Lady Rich. The weak link or not, depending on one’s taste, is Susan Bullock’s portrayal of the queen. It’s very well acted and carefully characterised but I just can’t bring myself to like her voice in this music. We are, of course, talking a soprano who has sung Elektra at the Met and she has the voice one would expect; big, lots of slice, more vibrato than I care for in this music. Your mileage may vary. The orchestra and chorus sound suitably grand under the direction of Britten expert Paul Daniel.
Video direction is by Robin Lough and it’s pretty decent with just the odd weird camera angle to distract. It’s an HD recording and looks really good on Blu-ray. The DTS-MA surround sound is clear with good bass extension. There are a couple of short bonus tracks; one dealing with the work and the other called “Britten’s Aldeburgh”. Both are worth watching if not especially exciting. The booklet has an essay and a synopsis. Subtitle options are English, French, German, Korean and Japanese.
This is currently the only Blu-ray version of Gloriana but there are a couple of DVD alternatives including Phyllida Lloyd’s interesting but heavily cut BBC film based on her production for Opera North.