Britten : GlorianaLondres, 1963 (Audio)
Director: Bryan Fairfax
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It has been suggested that its very parochialism has been the main reason for the failure of Gloriana to win international success.
However,William Plomer's libretto is by no means all bland and adorational; its passions seem surprisingly, and effectively, operatic in the 19th-century Italian sense.
Mr. Plomer, a South African poet, based his text on Lytton Strachey's novel of 1928, Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History.
It recounts the sentimental affection of the aging monarch for her dashing young champion, Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex; his hotheaded restiveness, and his eventual condemnation to death for treason.
The central focus remains the Queen herself, salty of spirit but wise and self-sacrificial, and beloved by her subjects. Sometimes the need, or desire, to suggest history-book pageantry does bog things down, as in the Act 2 masque and choral dances and some of the slightly feeble snippets of enthusiasm by the people.
But within this ceremonial framework, Mr. Plomer has invested his characters, and especially the Queen herself, with considerable passion - so much so that comparisons with Donizetti's Roberto Devereux, unashamedly Italian as it is, are not entirely inappropriate. Stalking about the stage, sentimental, jealous and tragic, Elizabeth is a meaty role for a dramatically acute spinto soprano.
Britten's score contains some inspired moments: the Queen's noble aria at the close of Act 1; the final scene of Act 2, with its court dances and bizarre humiliation of Essex's wife, Frances; the entire first scene of the third act, with Essex bursting in upon the Queen in her dressing gown and then quailing before her unquenchable grandeur, and the melodramatic final scene, in which Elizabeth rises to a fury and signs Essex's death warrant. Throughout, Britten's magical economy of instrumentation, and his delicate, unslavish evocations of Elizabethan music, provide a refined pleasure. The finales of the first two acts were greeted with heartfelt cheers.
But there are questionable aspects, as well. The characters other than the Queen - even Essex himself - are uncompletely realized. Most problematic is the opera's epilogue, which was meant as a dreamy, almost surrealist scene in which the dying Queen transcends space and time and floats away into memories and dreams. At least on Saturday, the effect was inconclusive and anticlimactic. The decision to entrust much of the central character's final pronouncements to speech, rather than song, seems a particular miscalculation.