Gloriana -- When Elizabeth was preparing for her coronation and having a "II" added to her name, Benjamin Britten was commissioned to compose an opera for the occasion. And so with a libretto by William Plomer that was based mostly on the book "Elizabeth and Essex" by Lytton Strachey, "Gloriana" opened June 8, 1953, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. It was a disaster.
First of all, a good deal of the peerage, not all opera lovers, had to attend and were bored by Britten’s musical idiom. Later, those with a more technical knowledge of music praised the work, but it fell out of favor and was seldom performed. Secondly, showing the first Elizabeth as a not-all-that perfect monarch and woman was thought an insult to the monarchy and nobility as a whole and not a very good message for the upcoming second Elizabeth.
Personally, I find most of Britten’s operas boring; but a good production can make up for a lot. Director Richard Jones tries his best in his 2013 production of "Gloriana" at (fittingly) back at Convent Garden, now available on a double-DVD set from Opus Arte. His concept is to have the opera done as if in some Guild Hall with a few guests (Elizabeth II herself, for one), stage hands, prompter, and so on, all visible in the exposed wings. This is not a very original concept.
The characters in the play-within-the-play are dressed in stylized Tudor costumes, while the bystanders are in 1953 attire. This makes the choppy plot -- The Queens’ love for Essex and their falling out -- more distanced from the viewers in the theater and even more for the viewer at home.
The acting and vocalizing is variable. Susan Bullock is a believable troubled monarch, but some of her higher notes sound edgy. Toby Spence is passionate as Essex, while Brindley Sherrat makes a strong impression as the Blind Ballad Singer.
Britten’s treatment of old English music tends to take out all the simplicity, and he loses the original beauty by trying to make it sound like German Lieder. Try listening to his arrangements of English folk songs on a CD or his charmless resetting of "The Beggar’s Opera," and you will hear what I mean. So even his "courtly dances," much played at pops concerts, start by sounding Elizabethan and quickly become Brittenized. The rest of the score, for the most part, is declamation to the point where it is a relief when Elizabeth is given spoken dialogue in the last scene.
The performance is conducted by Paul Daniel with verve, but only the Essex rebellion generates any real excitement. Many will find the off-stage choruses far too lacking in volume to be heard, much less understood.
The running time is 163 minutes with a short "making ofŠ" bonus. The subtitles are in five languages. As always, Opus Arte does not feel it necessary to provide a tracking list with timings in the booklet.
Verdi at the Met -- Sony Classical has gathered together in a boxed set 10 operas by Verdi that were broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera from1935 to 1967. No one is claiming that any of these are the best performances that could have been chosen, but the historical interest is great and many listeners might recall hearing these very broadcasts.
Each two-CD opera is in its own cardboard envelope and there is a booklet giving background information and tracking numbers and timings for all of the performances. All I wish to do here is to list the operas with broadcast years and lead singers. I hope the omission of first names will cause no problems.
"La Traviata" (1935) -- Ponselle, Jaegel, Tibbett; "Otello" (1940) -- Martinelli, Rethberg, Tibbett; "Un Ballo in Maschera" (1940) -- Milanov, Bjoerling; "Rigoletto" (1945) -- Warren, Sayao, Bjoerling; "Falstaff" (1949) -- Warren, Resnik, Valdengo, Albanese; "Simon Boccanegra" (1950) -- Warren, Varnay, Tucker; "La Forza del Destino" (1952) -- Milanov, Tucker, Warren; "Macbeth" (1959) -- Warren, Rysanek, Bergonzi; "Nabucco" (1960) -- MacNeil, Rysanek, Siepi; "Aida" (1967) -- Price, Bergonzi, Bumbry, Merrill, Hines.
I believe many of my readers would be most interested in hearing all of these, even with the audio as it was then. I do miss all the intermission features, which I wish would be released in separate CD sets.
Frank Behrens reports on classical and Broadway music as well as recordings of books and plays for the Arts & Entertainment section.