Given that the operatic firmament is celebrating Britten's 100th Anniversary this year, and that Her Majesty the Queen is celebrating the 60th anniversary of her Coronation, there was really only ever one of Britten's operas that the Royal Opera could choose to commemorate both occasions (some might unfairly call it killing two birds with one stone) and that was Gloriana.
Commissioned to celebrate the Coronation back in 1953, the first night of Gloriana has gone down in operatic annals as one of the biggest disasters of all time. Playing in front of Her Majesty, the entire royal family, courtiers, heads of state and other assorted bigwigs not exactly renowned for their love or appreciation of the art form, Britten's opera fell flat on its face.
We're reliably informed in the programme booklet that the remaining nine performances were a critical and box office success. Fair enough, but it can't have been that much of a success as the Royal Opera waited 60 years before staging it again. Since its premiere, performances have been few and far between. ENO revived it for Sarah Walker in the 80s, and Opera North went a long way in rehabilitating the piece with Phyllida Lloyd's staging in the 90s, with Josephine Barstow as the Virgin Queen, but that's been about it.
Has an absolute masterpiece been languishing unfairly in the doldrums? I'm afraid not. There can be no escaping the fact that for the majority of the opera it's all too noticeable that Britten was writing for ‘an occasion'. There are interminable dances, a ‘Masque' which outstays its welcome, and a plethora of fanfares which put Aida to shame, all of which Britten no doubt felt that he had to include given the pomp and circumstance that was required of such a commission. In doing this however, Britten's innate musical ear and infallible sense of drama escape him, and we're left with a work that simply doesn't gel.
But there is good news - Richard Jones' staging is an undisputed triumph. He and his designer Ultz set the opera in the 1953, staging it as a work that's being performed in a village hall for Her Majesty, whom we see arrive before the show starts. We're privy to the backstage antics, the prompter, the guy working the curtain, the chorus master and a figure pacing up and down who turns out to be the composer. There's a whiff of provincial panto about the sets and costumes but far from adding an additional layer of obfuscation, Jones' take on the piece for me gives real dramatic credibility to what is essentially a pretty weak opera. It's worth noting that Jones and the production team received the loudest ovation from the first night audience, and rightly so.
Musically, there's plenty to admire too. The choral singing is brilliant, and the men in particular are superb, especially Toby Spence's ardently lyrical Essex, Mark Stone's forthright Mountjoy, and Jeremy Carpenter's sonorous Cecil. Andrew Tortise as The Spirit of The Masque is certainly a tenor to watch whilst Brindley Sherratt makes a tour de force cameo appearance as the Blind Ballad-Singer.
Amongst the women, Patricia Bardon uses her smoky mezzo to alluring effect as Essex's wife, Frances but Kate Royal is prone to shrillness as Penelope. As Queen Elizabeth I, Susan Bullock never quite manages to muster the air of haughtiness or imperiousness that the role requires and all those Elektras and Brunnhildes have taken their toll, as you have to strain to hear her when she's singing in the middle of the voice, whilst some top notes sound squally. Still, she rises nobly to deliver a majestic final act.
Conductor Paul Daniel inspires the orchestra to some first-class playing – the few discrepancies between stage and pit will no doubt be ironed out as the run progresses. Not a great opera then, but the Royal Opera have managed to pull a brilliant staging out of the hat.
Gloriana is broadcast live to cinemas on Monday 24 June.