Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, London, 2nd July 2013 3.5 stars

The Pearl FishersA cursory glance at the programme inset gives one brief pause for thought: on Monday 24 June 2013 (a performance that was relayed live to cinemas all over the UK) the Royal Opera gave their 16th performance of Gloriana. Sixteen performances in sixty years – hardly a runaway box office success. And the more I watched the quirky, stylish but tongue-in-cheek new production by Richard Jones, the more I came to the conclusion that here we had a wonderfully musical and theatrical director (five minutes of his Falstaff currently running at Glyndebourne is ample proof of that) who had decided, in the case of Gloriana, that he did not really trust his source material. And so he decided to direct an ironic take on a performance of Gloriana in 1953, with a young Queen Elizabeth II crossing the stage as Prologue and Epilogue, surrounded by fawning courtiers and inspecting the village hall forces who had assembled to stage a Gloriana pageant in her honour. Did it work, as a ‘play within a play’ concept? Only in parts, is my answer: the framing of the opera, in the way Jones decided to do it, stood in the way of us, the audience, becoming emotionally and dramatically absorbed in the work. So while there was much to enjoy and to admire, and some glorious choral and orchestral work under the sure baton of Paul Daniel, the end effect was muted.

This is a pity. Britten himself wrote to William Plomer in 1952 an admirable synthesis of what he was trying to achieve. “My feelings at the moment are that I want the opera to be crystal clear, with lovely pageantry…but linked by a strong story about the Queen and Essex – strong and simple. A tall order, but I think we can do it!” And, as those of us can attest who saw the superb Opera North production twenty years ago (even in the semi-staged version that I caught in the wonderful acoustic of Snape Maltings), Gloriana can be atmospheric, dramatic and full of pageantry, all at the same time. Moreover, if it has an Elizabeth with the commanding artistry of Josephine Barstow, who made the part unforgettable at the time, it can work as an effective piece of music theatre.

But within the parameters set by Richard Jones, there were many aspects of this new production to enjoy, often with a sense of wry amusement. The stage designs were typical of Ultz, with painted brick walls and flat panels flying up and down, cloister facades being wheeled on and off stage, the sense of the artificial never far away and reinforced by the sight of onstage stage hands and technicians creating the picturesque faux-Elizabethan world of Gloriana and her court. And within that world was a strong ensemble cast who, in a more straightforward production, might have been able to impose their respective vocal and dramatic characterizations more successfully.

Mark Stone and Toby Spence made immediate good impressions in the opening, ‘quarrel’ scene, and Clive Bayley and Jeremy Carpenter completed a strong line-up of male principals soon after. Spence made the leading part of Essex his own, singing with strength and colour in the voice and producing a well-focused all round portrayal. On the female side, Patricia Bardon excelled as Lady Essex, her voice as thrilling as always in the lower register. As her sister-in-law, Lady Rich, Kate Royal sang well within herself and moved delightfully, but only really came into her own in the ensemble passages – in particular, in the magnificent quartet that ends Act Two. The other soloists who made real impressions were the sonorous Jeremy White, as the Recorder of Norwich, and the Blind Ballad Singer Brindley Sherratt, whose voice carried magnificently in all parts of the house.

That leaves the Elizabeth of Susan Bullock, looking commanding and imperious and absolutely haunting in the bedroom scene of Act Three. Bullock sang the role like the Wagnerian soprano that she is, full toned, with dramatic intensity and with wonderful declamation – almost sounding at times like Sprechgesang. But I missed any real variation of colour in her voice and found her performance a little one-paced. The role calls for more nuances of shading than Bullock was ultimately able to offer.

As a whole, a missed opportunity? No, there were many incidental delights and the orchestral playing brought out all the subtleties and clever touches that abound in Britten’s score, the odd moments of pastiche suddenly giving way to highly dramatic, grand opera extended scenarios. And there was enough onstage dramatic action, ranging from the big set-pieces to the private moments, to persuade me once again that Gloriana is a much better opera – as a whole – than it is often given credit for. For that, at least, three and a half stars and cheers for the Royal Opera’s contribution to Britten’s centenary year.

By Mike Reynolds

Photos: Royal Opera