Evoking a Royal Heritage: Britten's 'Gloriana'

woo-gloriana-img150If ever an opera has gotten a "bad rap," surely it's Benjamin Britten's Gloriana -- a piece that was undermined by the very occasion for which it was written.

In 1952, when Britain's current queen, Elisabeth II, ascended to the throne, Britten was approached by London's Royal Opera House about composing a brand new opera to help celebrate her coronation. Not surprisingly, that turned out to be a somewhat complicated process. Before one can write an opera dedicated to a queen, one must first obtain royal permission -- and that took a while, leaving Britten with limited time to complete the project.

For the libretto, he turned to William Plomer, who had also worked with Britten on his operas Curlew River and The Prodigal Son. In turn, Plomer based his story on Elisabeth and Essex: A Tragic History, a book by Lytton Strachey about the long and complex relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex.

The coronation of Elizabeth II took place on June 2, 1953. Britten's opera premiered at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, six days later -- with the queen in attendance. And that's where the opera's problems began.

Naturally, the opening night was a gala event, with not only the queen on hand, but also a whole raft of higher-ups and muckety-mucks. And in that rarified company, the opera itself must surely have been seen as an interloper. In the course of the drama, Elizabeth I is at times portrayed in less than flattering fashion -- once literally, when she appears in a stolen, and flagrantly unattractive gown.

Not unexpectedly, given the audience, the opera was poorly received. Many regarded it as inappropriate for a royal celebration. Others considered it downright insulting to confront the second Queen Elizabeth with a warts-and-all presentation of the first one.  As a result, the score fell into relative obscurity -- especially considering the popularity of Britten's other operas -- and with no performances to be heard, the opera's merits seemed forgotten.

Fortunately that's changing -- even from a royal perspective, it would seem. In 2013, the Royal Opera House mounted a brand new production of Gloriana to celebrate the diamond jubilee of Elizabeth II, almost precisely 60 years after its 1953 premiere. This time, the piece got its due: a glowing reception, worthy of a beautiful and compelling drama by one of the 20th century's finest opera composers. 

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us that diamond jubilee production, from London's Royal Opera House. The stars are soprano Susan Bullock as Queen Elizabeth I, and tenor Toby Spence as Essex, in a performance led by conductor Paul Daniel.