English National Opera – Britten’s Gloriana, with Christine Rice and Robert Murray, conducted by Martyn Brabbins, in a concert staging by Ruth Knight

Britten

Gloriana – opera in three Acts to a libretto by William Plomer after Lytton Strachey’s ‘Elizabeth and Essex’ [sung in English with English surtitles]

Queen Elizabeth I – Christine Rice
Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex – Robert Murray
Frances Devereux, Lady Essex – Paula Murrihy
Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy – Duncan Rock
Penelope, Lady Rich – Eleanor Dennis
Sir Robert Cecil – Charles Rice
Sir Walter Raleigh – David Soar
Henry Cuffe – Alex Otterburn
Lady-in-Waiting – Alexandra Oomens
Recorder of Norwich/Ballad Singer – Willard White
Housewife – Claire Barnett-Jones
Spirit of the Masque – Innocent Masuku

Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Martyn Brabbins

Ruth Knight – Director
Sarah Bowern – Costume Designer
Ian Jackson-French – Lighting Designer
Barbara Šeneltová – Video Designer


3 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 8 December, 2022
Venue: The London Coliseum

What a strange and, serendipitously, oddly timed event this was. For one night only, a special performance from the currently beleaguered English National Opera of Britten’s Gloriana, a tribute to the late monarch, who died 419 years after the death of her Tudor namesake. It was billed as a concert staging but was much more elaborate than that suggests. All the soloists were of the book and wore Tudor costumes, the acting was expressive and natural, and Barbara Šeneltová’s video work and Ruth Knight’s direction were effective and to the point. It all felt thoroughly rehearsed. Add ENO’s excellent Chorus, the large orchestra spilling out of the pit onto the stage and into nearby boxes, Martyn Brabbins’s stylish command of his forces, and a fine cast including a strong representation in various cameo roles from ENO’s Harewood Artist scheme, this was ENO on top form, validating its worth with considerable vigour. Long may it reign.

Christine Rice had the role of Queen Elizabeth I to her fingertips, infatuated with a nobleman thirty years her junior, capricious, isolated and regal, a performance of great breadth and insight, brilliant in the ball-scene where she lethally demolishes Lady Essex by stealing her gown. Hogging the tenor limelight, Robert Murray played her favourite, her ‘Robin’, the Earl of Essex more as a stressed-out opportunist than swaggering lady-killer, only hinting at his careless ambition, more at home in moments of grand passion than seductive in plangent lute-songs. The men surrounding Elizabeth and Essex all gave sharp, layered performances – a quartet of baritone and bass voices laying siege to Essex’s tenor, led by Duncan Rock’s superb Mountjoy, Essex’s ally-cum-rival, with Elizabeth in thrall to David Soar’s Walter Raleigh and Charles Rice’s Robert Cecil, both exceptional and both in the Hilary Mantel league of political dark arts. Paula Murrihy suffered eloquently as Essex’s miserable wife Frances, and Eleanor Dennis was very convincing as Penelope (Essex’s sister) pursuing her tryst with Mountjoy. Willard White and Innocent Masuku made their mark in their cameo roles.

You couldn’t fault the quality of the performance, but as she embarked on the second Elizabethan age, the young Queen Elizabeth II must have been as puzzled as the rest of us by what Britten was trying to tell her and the nation in his Coronation opera, about Essex’s progress to a traitor’s execution ordered by his besotted sovereign. Britten’s Tudor pastiche distanced many listeners, here further exposed by the sung but undanced choral dances. It is still unclear what we are supposed to be identifying with and continues to consign the opera to also-ran status.

The scale of Brabbins’s conducting did measure up to Britten’s music for the signing of Essex’s death warrant, which gets near to the impact of similar moment in his Billy Budd (1951), but Gloriana still feels let down by the spoken text with which it closes. I suppose the opera might still lead some ex-members of the Royal family to reflect upon the nature of treachery, but I’m not holding my breath.

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