Benjamin Britten at the Royal Opera House: An uneasy partnership
A look over this troubled relationship – and the glorious operas it produced.
Joan Cross, Basil Coleman (producer) and Benjamin Britten during rehearsals for ‘Gloriana’ (1953) at Orme Square. ©1953 ROH / Roger Wood
Benjamin Britten invigorated British music making like no other figure, and nowhere more so than in opera. Founded just a year after the premiere of Peter Grimes, the Covent Garden Opera Company (The Royal Opera from 1968) might have been an obvious ally but collaborations between the composer and Covent Garden were complex affairs and often fraught with in-fighting.
Britten’s Royal Opera House debut was with Peter Grimes in 1947. The opera had already enjoyed phenomenal success from its first performance at Sadler’s Wells on 7 June 1945 – but not without some personal cost. Though director and soprano Joan Cross adored the score, the company were not overjoyed to discover their first peacetime opera would be a new work by a 31-year-old conscientious objector. Add in the sotto voce rumours over Britten and Peter Pears’s relationship and the result was a poisonous rehearsal atmosphere. Eventually Cross left the company under storm clouds and Peter Grimes was dropped from the Sadler’s Wells repertory at Britten’s explicit request. The subsequent 1947 Royal Opera House production was an on-stage success, but Britten had learnt to be wary.
Britten’s first Royal Opera House commission, Billy Budd, was created for the 1951 Festival of Britain – though a troubled gestation meant that the opera missed the festival by several months. Britten and his librettist E.M. Forster collided over the depiction of Billy’s nemesis Claggart and Forster’s polite condescension soon turned into overt contempt. Pears remembered Forster talking to Britten ‘as though he were an insolent servant’; Forster wrote ‘I am rather a fierce old man at the moment, and he is rather a spoilt boy’. Despite mixed reviews Billy Budd established itself in the repertory, more thoroughly so when Britten revised the opera into two acts for a BBC broadcast in 1961, first performed on stage at the Royal Opera House in 1964.
In 1952 Britten accepted an unprecedented commission to mark the new Queen’s coronation with a gala opera. Britten and his librettist William Plomer audaciously chose Lytton Strachey’s ambivalent Elizabeth and Essex as their source – the result was Gloriana. At the opera’s premiere on 8 June 1953 Cross and Pears sang the star roles to a gala gathering of royalty and political bigwigs. It was a catastrophe. The audience – not selected for their love of 20th-century music – railed against music ‘as clamorous and ugly as hammers striking steel rails’ and a subtext that they perceived insult to the Queen. But Richard Jones’s production of this complex masterpiece is long overdue: aside from two performances by Opera North of Phyllida Lloyd’s production in 1994, the opera has not been seen at the Royal Opera House since 1953.
Of Britten’s ten subsequent stage works only two were for the Royal Opera House. Britten’s sole ballet The Prince of the Pagodas, commissioned by John Cranko for Sadler’s Wells Ballet, suffered when Cranko and Britten fell out, and despite Britten’s radiant score the ballet was deemed a failure (Kenneth MacMillan considerably remedied its problems with a new scenario in his 1989 Royal Ballet production, revived last Season). The very last was Britten’s television opera Owen Wingrave, broadcast in 1971 and staged in 1973 at the Royal Opera House – where it became obvious Britten had composed with a keen eye on its suitability for live performance.
No matter how tempestuous his operas’ geneses, Britten’s music tells a different story. Luminous and often heartbreaking his 100th anniversary is definitely worth celebrating.
This production has been made possible thanks to the generous philanthropic support of the Britten-Pears Foundation, the Boltini Trust and Lindsay and Sarah Tomlinson.