Gloriana: An Opera Fit for a Queen

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The pomp and circumstance that have attended the four-day celebration of Elizabeth II’s 60 years on the British throne have been of operatic proportion: The costumes! The stagecraft! The veneration of the diva in the central role! If only opera houses could so successfully accomplish what has been done in honor of Her Majesty. Perhaps some opera company should consider hiring Adrian Evans, the Royal Pageant Master, who even figured out how to still the seven-meter tides on the River Thames so that the June 3 Jubilee Flotilla could sail serenely.

Among the flotilla’s thousand vessels were ten music barges, one containing the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Another part of the festivities is the June 4 Diamond Jubilee concert at the Queen Victoria memorial, to be broadcast on BBC One on June 5 at 5:45 pm ET. The music will be from the six decades of Elizabeth’s reign and the list of performers includes Elton John, Cliff Richard, Kylie Minogue, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder. The only classical artists scheduled to perform are Renée Fleming and Lang Lang, neither one a British subject.

London's two chief opera companies seem not to have done any special programming for the Diamond Jubilee. If the works now on their stages — Richard Strauss’s Salome at the Royal Opera and Detlev Glanert’s Caligula at the English National Opera — were thought to have any connection to the events at nearby Buckingham Palace, those choices would be bloody strange.

It strikes me that not much new music, if any, has been created for the Diamond Jubilee. For Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, new works were composed by Arnold Bax, Arthur Bliss, Ralph Vaughan-Williams, William Walton and Healy Willan. This was possible because there was a fifteen-month gap between her ascension and her coronation. When she became Queen on February 6, 1952, she was a grieving young woman mourning the death of her father, King George VI. Her official coronation took place on June 2, 1953.

There is another composition from the coronation, an opera by Benjamin Britten, that has been conspicuously absent from the current festivities. Gloriana had its premiere at the Royal Opera House on June 8, 1953. It tells the story of Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, count of Essex, characters who have been depicted in other operas. The audience for the premiere, all invited, liked the costumes and scenery but did not care for the music and were hostile to William Plomer’s libretto, which clearly recounted a passionate story that seemed rather inappropriate in the context of feting a new monarch who is the namesake of Elizabeth I. Reviews were rather guarded and some critics inferred that the presentation of the aging queen in a human way was an insult to the young Elizabeth. The opera did not receive another production until 1966. 

Two portions of the opera have established themselves as worthy of occasional performance in the concert hall. One is the compelling Soliloquy and Prayer (sung here by Leontyne Price) and the Courtly Dances, in which Britten artfully evoked the flavor of music from the first Elizabethan era.

I have only seen two performances of Gloriana, both in 1984 at the Metropolitan Opera House during a visit by the English National Opera. This production by Colin Graham was a rare staging of the opera and Sarah Walker was superb as Elizabeth I. Here are some highlights:

Act I, Scene One

(Also see this clip and this clip.)

Act II, Scene Three

(Also see Act III, Scene Three, and here, plus the thrilling conclusion to the opera.)

Despite this production, which made an excellent case for the opera, Gloriana still has failed to gain much currency. I think there are two chief reasons for this. The first is the hostile reception it received at its premiere, where it was meant to honor a monarch who still is on the throne. Perhaps performing it would be thought to displease Her Majesty.

The second reason is that there are, indeed, other operas about Elizabeth I that have been of more interest to singers. Beverly Sills made a specialty of the role in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. Elizabeth I is an unsympathetic character in Mary Stuarda, about Mary Stuart, but both characters are given amazing music by Donizetti and a hair-raising performance here by Marisa Galvany as Elizabeth and Sills in the title role. Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra, by Rossini, is seldom performed but has music that is congenial to artists such as Montserrat Caballé and José Carreras.

Gloriana deserves more frequent performances (a revival is scheduled for the Royal Opera House in June 2013). As in other Britten operas such as Peter Grimes, Billy Budd and Death in Venice, the composer created a sound world that is specific yet never derivative. In Gloriana, it evokes the declamatory style of Purcell while maintaining a contemporary theatricality. What was not initially acknowledged, and deserves to be, is how seamlessly and coherently the music serves the theatrical narrative, from beginning to end, while also being great to listen to unto itself.

As it happens, a detail in Sunday’s flotilla caught my attention and gives me some hope. According to an article in The Daily Telegraph:

“The newest boat in the Pageant, the gilded and magnificent royal rowbarge, Gloriana, gave spectators a flavour of a previous Elizabethan age as its 18 oarsmen, led by the multiple Olympic gold medal winner Sir Steve Redgrave, powered the 94-ft. vessel downstream. It was the first time the Queen had seen her Jubilee gift in action. The £1 million Gloriana, one of the true stars of the show, had been specially commissioned for the event and was presented to the sovereign earlier in the year. As they approached the royal barge, Garrison Sergeant Major Bill Mott, who is reputed to possess the most powerful voice in the British Army, called Gloriana to order by barking at its crew to ‘toss oars’ in salute to Her Majesty, before leading three cheers for the Queen.”

May Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana again rule the operatic waves and may composers today be inspired to write operas as fine that evoke the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. I can’t wait to hear the March of the Corgis.

Photo: Gloriana row barge (Flickr/dc07703)