Benjamin Britten: Gloriana (1953)

Opera in three acts (because this one is in English!) Running Time: 2 hours 38 minutes.

FYI: This post was released on the 420th anniversary of the execution of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex.

Written for the coronation festivities of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, this was one of the few failures of an otherwise successful career as an opera composer for Britten. Criticism mostly revolves around the depiction of Elizabeth I as vain and sensual, not the music itself, however, and even so, is not my blog all about operas people do not usually encounter?

This is also a review that I have been wanting to write for a while. Thank you to OperaScribe for the gift subscription to Medici.tv as this review is of the 2018 Real de Madrid performance on their website.

SETTING: England, 1595-1601. Initially about a conflict between Lord Mountjoy (baritone) and the Earl of Essex (tenor), Robert Devereux realizes that he is really making enemies with Queen Elizabeth (soprano), especially after he fails to subdue Ireland and Mountjoy becomes the lover of his sister Penelope (soprano).

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: (47 minutes)

0: The prelude * is good introduction filler reminding us several times that although the score is diatonic, we are nevertheless living in the 20th century.

Scene 1: A tournament.

3: How he takes it up! The opening scene ** starts off with the chorus off-stage describing the events of the tournament while Essex sasses about like a jealous schoolgirl (please believe me when I say that I speak from experience here) and the tenor lines (written for Peter Pears) are oddly stilted compared to either the chorus or Henry Cuffe (the baritone giving the rest of the commentary, who himself was executed for treason in 1601). The cheers of Mountjoy eventually become comedic in frequency.

7: Green leaves are we A pseudo-period song which frames the entire work in honour of Elizabeth is sung * as Mountjoy comes in like a victorious Game of Thrones character about to make a sex joke about his long lance. Essex makes fun of him and the inevitable fight ensues.

10, 14: The Entrance of the Queen *. She sees that Essex is bleeding and is furious: obviously someone has been fighting at Court! They try to make excuses but Elizabeth leaves explaining the situation to Sir Walter Raleigh in what in the mid-19th century would have been taken up in an amusing couplet *.

16: Like Solomon, the Wisest Prince Elizabeth passes judgement ordering them to reconcile at once * and for once we actually have something resembling a climax in the music.

19: Long may she keep this realm A very good chorus ends the scene ** and a repeat of the chorus from earlier. Essex and Mountjoy reconcile and a Grand March finishes the scene.

Scene 2: The Royal Apartments, Nonsuch Palace.

23: A buzzing prelude * leads a dialogue between Elizabeth and Lord Cecil. They make small talk about how Penelope was probably concerned with her brother fighting her lover (concern for both) and then Elizabeth admits that she has the hots for Essex (Cecil warning that this is not a good idea).

26: This ring I had at my crowning Elizabeth embarks on the first thing resembling an aria in the opera **. Cecil then embarks on another aria about holding power but the accompaniment is very weird (woodwinds). They then discuss the most obvious thing, the Spanish Armanda.

31, 40: Queen of my Life!/Then stay with me! The long courtship scene (not exactly a love scene) between Elizabeth and Essex *** starts with impassioned exchanges and then two tenor lute songs, and finally a brilliant duet, easily the best section in the entire act. Eventually Raleigh shows up and talk turns to having Essex appointed leader of the campaign in Ireland.

42: On rivalries tis best for kings to base their power Alone, Elizabeth contemplates the nature and science of political power **.

44: O God, my king Elizabeth ends the act with a prayer in free form *** but leading to a mighty climax as the curtain falls.

ACT 2: (52 minutes)

Scene 1: Townhall of Norwich.

4: The elements of Gloriana After a touching scene in which Elizabeth helps the Recorder of Norwich, we have the Masque (basically an excuse to have a choral-ballet sequence, but it is rather good as an example of rustic late 16th century entertainment **).

Scene 2: The gardens of the Essex Estate.

20: A garden by a river Mountjoy meets up with Penelope for an illicit tryst ** and she somehow manages to right Themes with Stratagems. They get interrupted by her brother and his wife talking about his ambition and her pleas for caution and patience.

Scene 3: Whitehall.

29: Pavane Another ballet scene (there is little plot in this act) although throughout the usage of real 16th century dance forms, Britten does not parody them, they sound like the legit thing which is in itself a bit of a triumph **. Lady Essex comes on wearing a gorgeous white dress (which she was forced to wear by her husband), but there are fears that the Queen might take revenge for being upstaged.

33, 35, 38: Galliard/On Hot Nights/Lavolta/Morris Dance The next dance * goes into the arrival of Elizabeth and her…revenge! But first we have to show off EVERY 16th century dance craze so lavolta is performed, the women leave to change costumes, and a Morris Dance is performed with the male members of the cast. Frances, that is, Lady Essex comes out in a very plain dress and they all soon discover that the Queen has stolen the dress and is now wearing it herself!

40: Well ladies, how like you? The Burlesque of the Queen **. She leaves all desolated in her viciously comedic wake! Frances is humiliated.

41: Good Frances, do not weep! Essex, Mountjoy, and Penelope try to console the only character in the opera who is basically innocent in a lovely trio **. Essex threatens to kill the Queen in revenge.

43: The Queen returns to a Tudor march *. She declares that Robert is now Lord Deputy of Ireland.

48: Victor of Cadiz! Grand ensemble ** followed by a Coranto, ending this masque of an act.

ACT 3: (58 minutes)

Scene 1: The Chambers of the Queen.

1: What is the news from Ireland? The matrons chatter about the failure of Essex in Ireland *.

5: My Lord of Essex! The second great number in the opera, the second duet between Elizabeth and Essex *** as he breaks into her bedroom and finds her in her dressing gown.

13: Lady, to your dressing-table turn again The lovely dressing song as her ladies make sure that the Queen looks presentable ***. A gorgeous soprano con coro piece. Cecil then reports that the situation in Ireland is deadly: either France or Spain could use it as a launch pad to attack England. Elizabeth orders that Essex be put under guard.

Scene 2: A Tavern.

21: To bind by force A bass bard fills us in on the arrest and trial of Essex ** who has been sentenced to death. Anyone supporting Essex is to be branded a traitor. But the execution warrant has not yet been signed. A band of boys come on singing about the impending execution. An elderly wench verbally abuses the Essex supporters until they leave.

Scene 3: Whitehall.

32: The most romantic of the preludes/interludes ** leads to the verdict and Cecil warning that Elizabeth might very well pardon Essex even with the death sentence, after all, the warrant remains unsigned. Elizabeth arrives, Cecil begs her to sign and she dismisses everyone.

39: Alone, Elizabeth contemplates what to do; she is a woman conflicted.

40: Great Queen, Mountjoy, Lady Rich, and Frances plead for Essex **. This touches Elizabeth and is one of the better moments in the opera dramatically as the relationship between these two female characters, usually at odds, is in concord.

45: The noble Lord of Essex But Lady Rich, his own sister, essentially seals his fate by attacking the Queen verbally, claiming that her brother owes nothing to her and would be a great man even without Elizabeth. The warrant gets signed: and then the most thrilling moment in the entire score occurs as the warrant is signed and Lady Rich screams to a massive orchestral explosion ***.

49: In some unhaunted desert Elizabeth is haunted by the ghosts of Essex, Cecil, the young Elizabeth. Most of this is in speech form in the form of an epilogue ** ending with one last reprise of Green leaves are We.

COMMENTS:

Unlike in Roberto Devereux the Earl of Essex is hardly the hero of Gloriana. From the beginning it is obvious from the usage of slithering grace notes that our tenor is a whiny little pain in the butt. This is probably a good thing, since we are really watching for Elizabeth, and Essex is merely (and somewhat ironically) just the source of drama for the piece. Raleigh or Dudley could just as easily have been exchanged for Devereux. He is, however, the only character other than Elizabeth that is more than an instrument for her (although even he is a plot device more than a flesh and blood character). Frances Devereux comes closest otherwise but mostly because she is publicly humiliated and has the most the lose (the role itself is far too small).

The second act is certainly modelled off of the concept that the middle act is to be dedicated to ballet, although it successfully maintains dramatic structure by making the dancing itself part of the narrative. The problem, though, is that apart from the Tyrone issue and the dress, there really isn’t any plot apart from Essex being greedy for control leading to his execution, and Elizabeth being, well, Elizabeth. Each scene, however, has purpose: Elizabeth the Peacemaker, Elizabeth the woman and Queen, Elizabeth the Champion of the People, Elizabeth the occasional trickster who will not be slighted, and finally Elizabeth a Life in Retrospect, it is all here. The opera is too long, by around thirty minutes, but even if when it is at its worst it is dull, at its best it is amazing. An alpha.

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