Gloriana review – superb singing and smart staging illuminate Britten’s coronation opera

Coliseum, London
English National Opera’s one-off performance of Britten’s uneven opera was very fine in every respect, with Christine Rice an exceptional Elizabeth I

Originally scheduled to mark Elizabeth II’s platinum jubilee year, English National Opera’s single performance of Britten’s Gloriana became instead a tribute to the late Queen’s memory, heightening, perhaps, the ambiguities of a work that holds an awkward place in the Britten canon. Commissioned for the coronation celebrations of 1953, it drew something of a blank at the time. Based on Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex, the opera commemorates the start of the second Elizabethan age by chronicling the closing years of the first, and is essentially an ambivalent, darkly unsettling study of the loneliness of power and the sexual self-deceptions of age. The score is uneven and hampered by a dramatically clumsy first act, though later scenes contain some of Britten’s most resplendent music.

‘One of her greatest performances’ … Christine Rice as Queen Elizabeth I in Gloriana.
‘One of her greatest performances’ … Christine Rice as Queen Elizabeth I in Gloriana. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

ENO promised a concert performance, but Ruth Knight’s simple but effective staging, playing to a packed theatre, was much more. The chorus wore black and used scores, the protagonists were in period dress and sang from memory. Video projections provided historical detail and suggested the steady passing of time as it erodes people’s lives. Knight was particularly strong on the relationship between opportunism, hypocrisy and political machination as Robert Murray’s calculating Essex pressed his attentions on Christine Rice’s proud yet vulnerable Elizabeth in a world in which intrigue and gossip to some extent define and circumscribe both their lives.

Rice, singing Elizabeth for the first time, gave one of her greatest performances to date, admirably secure over the wide span of Britten’s vocal lines, and superbly characterised, the private doubts that offset the public self-assurance wonderfully conveyed. Murray, at once lyrical and incisive, sounded insidiously seductive in the lute songs with which he attempts to beguile Elizabeth. The rest of the cast was consistently strong. Duncan Rock made a handsome, cocksure Mountjoy, with Eleanor Dennis as his arrogant, imperious Penelope. Paula Murrihy was the longsuffering Lady Essex, loyal to the last, and Willard White, no less, played both the Ballad Singer and the Recorder of Norwich. Martyn Brabbins conducted it wonderfully well, with bags of passion and detail in the playing and splendid, richly resonant choral singing. An exceptionally fine evening, with ENO absolutely at the top of its game.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Marriage of Figaro review – superb singing in hilarious staging
A simple yet effective conceit is one of the revelations in a production strong on witty detail and anarchic stylisation

Flora Willson

15, Mar, 2020 @2:52 PM

Article image
A Midsummer Night’s Dream review – Carsen's classic staging makes a welcome return
Conductor Alexander Soddy leads a strong ensemble through a striking revival of Robert Carsen’s clean, uncluttered 1995 ENO production of Britten’s opera

Martin Kettle

02, Mar, 2018 @5:21 PM

Article image
War Requiem review – staging Britten's choral masterpiece brings uncertain rewards
Superb soloists lift this over-busy English National Opera production, securely conducted by Martyn Brabbins and featuring scenery by Wolfgang Tillmans

Erica Jeal

19, Nov, 2018 @10:47 AM

Article image
Paul Bunyan review – a cross between Cunning Little Vixen and a TUC meeting
Britten and Auden’s folklore opera might be barmy – with singing lumberjacks, a blue ox and a giant superhuman and unseen hero, but ENO has turned it into something genuinely worthwhile

Erica Jeal

04, Sep, 2018 @1:29 PM

Article image
The Turn of the Screw review – Britten's opera chills the spine as darkness falls
This superb production creeps into every corner of the outdoor space, as the battle for children’s souls intensifies

Michael Billington

26, Jun, 2018 @11:34 AM

Article image
Gloriana - review

It's done with a witty light touch, but the problems of the work, most stemming from the clunking libretto, are never really disguised, writes Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements

21, Jun, 2013 @11:06 AM

Article image
Peter Grimes, English National Opera - review

David Alden's 2009 production of Britten's opera remains an overwhelming experience, held together by Gardner's lyrical and searingly intense conducting

Tim Ashley

30, Jan, 2014 @10:18 AM

Article image
Death in Venice English National Opera – review

John Graham-Hall's remarkable Aschenbach, Edward Gardner's exemplary conducting and Deborah Warner's compelling staging make this unmissable, writes Martin Kettle

Martin Kettle

17, Jun, 2013 @10:41 AM

Prom 55: Peter Grimes – review

Derived from the ENO's 2009 production, this version of the Britten opera overwhelmed, writes Tim Ashley

Tim Ashley

26, Aug, 2012 @10:04 AM

Article image
Peter Grimes; Tippett Quartet – review

The 'risk and courage' of Britten's 1945 masterpiece are ever apparent in ENO's revival of David Alden's production, writes Fiona Maddocks

Fiona Maddocks

02, Feb, 2014 @8:30 AM