Of the many centenary tributes to Benjamin Britten, this was always going to be the most challenging. Sixty years after Britten’s opera celebrating the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II fell flat on its face in front of a glittering first-night gala audience, Gloriana is back.
It was brave of the Royal Opera to bring the work back to the theatre where it had its troubled birth. The composer never forgave what happened at the premiere in 1953 (he said he felt “kicked around over it”) and the opera has failed to make up the lost ground since.
In essence, Gloriana is a modern-day Tudor pageant, intended to honour the new Queen with reflected glory. Richard Jones’s new production, unsurprisingly given the director’s known form, presents its pomp and majesty at an oblique slant. Updated to the 1950s, a dumb show at the start shows the Queen arriving at a village theatre, where a historical drama about Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex is being performed by local people (shades of other Britten operas, such as Albert Herring and A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Unfortunately, the result is less sharp than most of Jones’s productions. The homely feel to the proceedings deflates any suspicion of pomposity nicely, but also cuts a bit close to the bone. One of Gloriana’s problems is that its “Tudorbethan” take on history and musical pastiche can feel uncomfortably parochial. There is nothing here of the greatness of Verdi’s Don Carlos, the epitome of what a historical, political opera can be.
Instead, the tone is light, playful, at times nearly a crude comic send-up of the historical characters. Susan Bullock, despite sounding strident, gave her all to the role of Queen Elizabeth I, who is portrayed as a declining, bitter, almost pathetic old hag. Toby Spence made a debonair Essex, alongside Mark Stone’s well-sung Lord Mountjoy, and in a decent cast overall Clive Bayley and Andrew Tortise add notably good contributions. The Royal Opera chorus excelled itself in the choral dances.
It is not Paul Daniel’s fault, as conductor, that the opera comes across as so shallow, compared with Britten’s other operas. For much of the time, especially through the 90-minute first half, drama and music are stretched painfully thin. Perhaps that first-night audience was not so wrong-headed after all.