Opera Essentials: Gloriana
A quick guide to Benjamin Britten's opera depicting the tensions between affairs of state and affairs of the heart.
The Story Begins…
Queen Elizabeth I of England has become infatuated with the young Earl of Essex. Essex admires the Queen but is keen to exploit her feelings to gain power and status. When he becomes a danger to the state, Elizabeth is forced to choose between duty and her personal feelings for Essex.
The Past and the Present
The music of Gloriana skilfully balances Britten’s own distinctive style with allusions to the music of the Tudor period. The world of the 16th century is vividly brought to live in the Choral and Court Dances, and in Essex’s Lute Songs. There are also more experimental ‘modern’ sections, such as the final scene, in which the Queen drifts into a strange, timeless world, resigning herself to death.
A Psychological Drama
The libretto for Gloriana was written by the South African novelist, poet and editor William Plomer. Britten had met Plomer at the first Aldeburgh Festival and the pair became friends. The principal source for the story of Gloriana was Lytton Strachey’s historical biography Elizabeth and Essex. Strachey brought his interest in Freudian psychology to his exploration of the Queen’s relationship with her young favourite.
A Coronation Celebration
Gloriana was written to celebrate the Coronation of Elizabeth II, to whom the opera was dedicated. Although the first performance on 8 June 1953 (given to an audience including The Royal Family, courtiers, politicians and dignitaries) met with a mixed response, Gloriana went on to be a great box office success. It was revived for three performances in 1954 and also performed at Covent Garden by Opera North in 1994. Richard Jones’s production is the first new staging of Gloriana by The Royal Opera since the opera’s premiere.
Public and Private
The conflict between the public and the private aspects of Elizabeth and Essex is vividly dramatized in Gloriana. Grand scenes such as the masque at Norwich (Act II scene 1) and the dance at Whitehall (Act II scene 3) contrast with the intimacy of Essex’s dialogues alone with the Queen, and then with the Queen’s growing isolation in Act III as she is forced to make her terrible decision to execute Essex.
Gloriana runs from 20 June to 6 July. Tickets are available now.
It will also be screened live in cinemas on 24 June, and will be broadcast live by BBC Radio 3 at 6.45pm on 29 June.
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.