Elizabeth lines: ‘Gloriana’ at English National Opera

ENO’s one-off presentation of Britten’s coronation opera – originally programmed as a platinum jubilee-year special – was destined to become a powerfully significant evening. A double tribute: not only to the late monarch herself, but to the ENO company itself – still very much alive, defying its would-be executioners by putting its heart and soul into a blistering performance, radiating talent, dedication, grit and inventiveness.

Despite thinking of myself as a card-carrying Britten fan, I was new to this work. It’s a bit more elusive: underperformed and under-recorded compared to his big-hitters. As a result, I think I’ve been introduced to it in the best possible way.

‘Gloriana’ wasn’t a hit with the critics of 1953. Perhaps this is not surprising: it would have nonplussed anyone expecting something fulsomely patriotic or celebratory. By dealing specifically with the relationship dynamic between Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex, it would surely have evoked memories of the 1939 Hollywood version – and Hollywood this is not.

Instead, it seems to me that Britten’s Elizabeth takes her place alongside his other psychological portraits (such as Grimes, Aschenbach, or Vere), walking a tightrope between head and heart, outer State versus inner state, keeping or losing her grip on power. More than anything else, it might have seemed like a warning to the young Elizabeth II, a warts-and-all rehearsal of life as queen, not just “queen of [Essex’s] life”.

While I found the piece extraordinary, it’s hard to see past a couple of stumbling blocks. The libretto (by William Plomer) and structure both seem forced in parts, as if hidebound to an ‘Elizabethan’ influence. For example, there’s the laboured puns (although as a wordplay addict myself, I can forgive anyone who rhymes ‘Thames’ with ‘strategems’ a great deal), and interruptions like the masque and town crier scenes bring the action – elsewhere a series of riveting soliloquies, conversations and interactions – to a grinding halt.

But if there are flaws in the opera, they only served to emphasise ENO’s strengths. This was a ‘concert performance’, but to be honest, given the level of creativity and commitment involved, it might has well have been fully staged. Any scenery needed – sometimes realistic, sometimes symbolic – was provided by elegantly sketched illustrations, projected onto the plain dark back-drop. The only significant prop was Elizabeth’s throne, which took centre stage at her moments of highest authority but was sidelined or removed when she was at her most human.

The Chorus performed all in black – acting very much as an original Greek chorus might – occupying a bank of spectator seats, set back far enough for the main action to play out front of stage, but prominent enough to view and commentate on the events, increase a sense of claustrophia and foreboding, and – crucially – for us, for once, to see them clearly as both individuals and a rock-solid unit. 

There are some fantastic choral moments in ‘Gloriana’, so how lucky we were to hear them sung by a fantastic Chorus. Both the women’s and men’s sections get their time in the sun, but what struck me in particular was the ensemble’s handling of Britten’s ‘vocalising’ of the gossip and reactions among the people: this felt complex, difficult, demanding not just beauty and accuracy but somehow generating an overall sonic ‘effect’, an atmosphere. Knowing from experience what brilliant movers the Chorus are in fully-staged works, but denied that form of expression here, I was newly reminded (as if I needed to be!) of just how strong and subtle the choristers are as vocal actors.

The soloists sang in full costume, and even the outfits themselves worked to sell the story and setting. Instead of the garish pomp we might have expected, the clothes were clearly reflective of the time but with a dark, used, leathery wear to them – period, but also ‘street’ – full credit to costume designer Sarah Bowern for demonstrating how vital these appearances are to the overall impact of the production.

The director, Ruth Knight, also drew exemplary turns from a dream cast. We might have taken their being on song for granted, but the acting throughout was honest, moving and ultimately, devastating. Robert Murray, constantly wracked and agitated, communicated Essex’s restlessness and impatience, while Paula Murrihy as Frances captured the Countess’s uneasy existence, fear undercutting her pride and nobility. Eleanor Dennis was stunning, showing multiple sides to her character, from Penelope the adulterous lover to the imperious Lady Rich, losing her inhibitions to cry a chilling “God forgive you!” at Elizabeth, accelerating Essex’s fate.

Christine Rice was making her role debut as Elizabeth I, but it was as if she’d inhabited the role for years. Her monarch displayed restraint, wisdom, vanity, empathy, humour, resignation, sadness and regret. (A neat directorial moment emphasised the loneliness of power as we saw Rice left alone on stage against the empty chorus seating.) RIce’s clarity and vocal dexterity meant that every aspect of Elizabeth – at her most commanding, impetuous or sympathetic – worked: one could imagine her delivering her lines as an ‘actual’ figure, while simultaneously appreciating the fact she was singing a part beautifully. Heightened, yet natural. Even an early, ‘showstopper’ moment where her voice soars as she prays aloud for strength convinced dramatically, as if the orchestra was coursing through her like the Holy Spirit.

ENO’s Orchestra were performing as if possessed. The dynamics music director Martyn Brabbins drew from them were at times shattering, their lush, warm sound morphing into a full-bodied, magnificent assault on the senses. A world away from ‘pomp and circumstance’, they drove home the strident and at times dissonant blare that Britten seems to use to bring alive the blood and terror behind the pageantry, placing us in the centre of the sound. Elsewhere, they provided the sparser deftness needed for the court dances or ballad scenes. This is perhaps an unusual word to choose, but over the whole evening, I was conscious of the orchestra’s charisma. They brought this world to life with distinct personality, their own character meshing with that of the time. This was exquisite playing, but with dirt under its fingernails.

At one key moment, I could see (from my Dress Circle seat) this whole ensemble fill my field of vision: the orchestra in the pit, and in two boxes at the sides, the line-up of soloists – many of whom are strongly associated with ENO, some through its Harewood Artists development scheme, and the full ranks of the chorus. This company has done more than any other to fire up my enthusiasm for opera, excite my emotions and stimulate my cultural thinking. I owe them so much, and I feel I’m not alone.

It’s sobering to think of the ingenuity, effort and dedication that must have gone into this single evening. By an accident of timing, we saw ‘Gloriana’ under a cloud (not that anyone betrayed this in their performance). However, there couldn’t have been a better advertisement for what ENO can do. If Arts Council England presses ahead with its blatantly unjust removal of ENO’s funding in the face of the company’s achievements (specifically meeting the expectations placed on them by ACE itself), then this exceptional group of people will be lost to us. Please support ENO by signing their petition, here.

AA

(Photos by AA; graphic from ENO publicity.)

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