Friday, 22 November 2013

Britten - Gloriana

Benjamin Britten - Gloriana

Royal Opera House, London, 2013

Paul Daniel, Richard Jones, Susan Bullock, Toby Spence, Patricia Bardon, Mark Stone, Kate Royal, Jeremy Carpenter, Clive Bayley, Brindley Sherratt

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Of all the revivals of Benjamin Britten's work in this centenary year of his birth, Gloriana was always going to be one of the more challenging to stage. Composed for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the work's original reception in 1953 was notoriously unfavourable, but although flawed in some respects and rarely performed since, it's clear that Gloriana features some of Britten's most inventive and brilliant writing and that it deserves much more attention. What better time then than the combination of the centenary of Britain's greatest composer, the 60th anniversary of Gloriana and indeed the jubilee of the monarch that it was written for to take a retrospective look at the work?

The Royal Opera House's new production, directed by Richard Jones, tries hard to take into consideration all these aspects of the work and its creation, but it's not entirely successful. The problem is not so much that the director tries to include references to the history of the work itself on top of the 16th century historical action of the work that covers the final years of Queen Elizabeth I. That's actually cleverly implemented, inventively staged and highly relevant in this year when one is more interested in re-evaluating the work of the composer than we are in expecting it to shed any new light on the events that led to the execution of Robert Devereux nearly 500 years ago. The question is whether this is the right work to be examining those issues in this particular way.

The challenge with staging Gloriana was always going to be finding a way that would be respectful to the work and at the same time do justice to its qualities without resorting to restaging the original production and ending up looking like a parody. By setting it in what appears to be a recreation of the Jubilee Hall at the Aldeburgh, with Queen Elizabeth II making an appearance to open the festival, Richard Jones touches on an important part of Britten's support of small amateur productions and performances, on the importance of music to the community and, through its Royal patronage, reaching out to the nation. The post-war period has proven to be a perfect place for examining essentially English qualities (and Jones has used it often before, most notably in the Glyndebourne Falstaff), and relating matters of class, small town attitudes and a village hall community sensibility with courtly historical intrigue and in the presence of the reigning monarch brings out an interesting dynamic that lies at the heart of the work.

It's unfortunate then that, as good an idea as this seems to be on paper, it doesn't actually do anything for the work itself, to judge at least from this recording of the 2013 Royal Opera House production. Part of the problem may indeed be that while the community setting is inappropriate. It might have worked fine for a work like Peter Grimes, which Jones successfully directed for La Scala in Milan, or for some of Britten's more intimate chamber works, but it tends to diminish the grander treatment of Gloriana and Britten's more complex orchestration and musical arrangements for it. Another part of the problem may be that the work itself, fascinating and unique though it might be in Britten's catalogue, never really amounts to more than the sum of its parts.

The production at least attempts to take some of the formal stuffiness out of the subject and address one of the most problematic aspects of the work - a wearisome libretto of archaic dialogue that, to say the least, lacks pithiness (Sample exchange between the Queen and the Earl of Essex - "O heretofore, though ringed with foes" / "What solace more would I disclose"/ "I only bled with arrows of the spring"/ "Better than tears the faithfulness I bring"). If you can get past the baffling libretto, there are some fascinating themes in Gloriana on the nature of being an ageing monarch but also being a woman, of the conflict between duties relating to the greater good of the nation and having one's personal feelings.

There's a wider scope to the work as well, the Queen visiting her subjects by attending an amateur performance of a masque at the Guildhall in Norwich, celebrating the "country largess", the industry of the common people and their faith in the idea of a nation. Britten's choice of music and courtly dances also reference Tudor pieces to celebrate the English heritage with great inventiveness, finding beauty in the simplicity of the musical themes but also using it as a basis to advance and progress on expression and meaning for the present. It's hard to establish however - from this production at least - exactly what Britten was aiming for in Gloriana as an opera. Is it a tragedy or a satire? Is the tone dark or celebratory? Is it a pagent or a "national opera"?

What's clear however is that it's very different from other Britten operas and you can't rely on the familiar themes that you can expect to find in his works. There's a "traitor" here and a forbidden love of sorts, but it hardly relates to Britten's status as an "outsider" or reflect his own difficult relationship as a public figure and as an Englishman. At any rate, it's probably a mistake to try and make Gloriana fit into a "community" opera production as Richard Jones does here. It seems like a great idea and does bring many of the themes of the work down to a relatable level, but it doesn't really connect with the spirit of the work or the music. It's the latter that is the greatest problem, since there is much of great interest in Britten's musical scoring for this work, yet it feels utterly lifeless here.

Sadly, the singing in the main roles isn't able to inject any life or personality into the work either. Gloriana would certainly need a much stronger voice than Susan Bullock in the role of Elizabeth I, even though her character is supposed to reveal a certain weakness and vulnerability. Bullock can hit the high emotional notes well enough, but she's scarcely audible in the half-sung exchanges that have insufficient colour and none of the necessary force. Toby Spence ought to be perfect casting for the high, bright tenor role of Essex, with a sense of youthful vigour that is in contrast to Elizabeth, but even he can't make up for the weaknesses in the presentation and delivery. Kate Royal, Patricia Bardon and Mark Stone are all wonderful and bring rather more character to their roles, but they aren't the kind of roles that can substantially determine or alter the overall quality of the production.

The technical specifications of the Blu-ray release are good, the production looking and sounding great in the High Definition format even if it does feel essentially lifeless. There are two short featurettes on the disc providing an introduction to Gloriana and to Britten's establishment of the Aldeburgh festival. The Blu-ray is region free and subtitles are in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.