Libretto by William Plomer after Lytton Strachey's 'Elizabeth and Essex' (E,G)
Major roles: 2S,M,T,3Bar,B;
minor roles: S,M,2T,Bar,2B,mimes; chorus; ballet
stage band: historical instruments
Boosey & Hawkes
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Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
Basil Coleman, director / John Cranko, choreographer
Conductor: John Pritchard
Company: Royal Opera, Covent Garden
|QUEEN ELIZABETH THE FIRST
|ROBERT DEVEREUX, Earl of Essex
|FRANCES, COUNTESS OF ESSEX
|CHARLES BLOUNT, LORD MOUNTJOY
|PENELOPE (LADY RICH), sister to Essex
|SIR ROBERT CECIL, Secretary of the Council
|SIR WALTER RALEIGH, Captain of the Guard
|HENRY CUFFE, a satellite of Essex
|A LADY IN WAITING
|A BLIND BALLAD SINGER
|THE RECORDER OF NORWICH
|THE SPIRIT OF THE MASQUE
|THE MASTER OF CEREMONIES
|THE CITY CRIER
|Citizens, Maids of Honour, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Household, Courtiers, Masquers, Old Men
|Time, Concord, Country Girls, Rustics, Fishermen, Morris Dancer
|Pages, Ballad-Singer's Runner, Phantom of the Queen
Time and Place
England, around 1600
At a royal tournament the ambitious Earl of Essex picks a fight with Lord Mountjoy and is wounded. Queen Elizabeth's punishment is that henceforth they shall always attend court together. They become friends. Cecil warns his monarch about Essex's unruliness, and about the likely threat of an Armada from Spain. Working on her fondness for him, Essex flatters the queen and asks to be appointed her Deputy in Ireland, to quell the rebel Tyrone. Elizabeth temporises, conscious of her position as monarch and wary of his impetuousness.
In Norwich the Queen is welcomed by the citizens and entertained with a masque of Time and Concord. At Essex's London house, the Earl, his sister Lady Rich and her lover Mountjoy plan their advancement to power: his wife counsels caution. At court the Queen insists the ladies change after a strenuous dance; she reappears wearing the gaudy dress of Essex's wife, shaming her. Essex is furious, but mollified when Elizabeth announces the appointment he has long urged and sends him to Ireland.
His campaign, however, is a failure, and on his sudden return he insists on admittance to the monarch while she dresses: he finds her an old woman without wig or make-up. He pleads his cause, but she is unconvinced and later Cecil warns her of his scheme to replace her. In London, Essex's supporters fail in their attempt to win the people over to his rebellion. Essex is condemned, and a deputation of his wife, sister and friend does not save him. Elizabeth signs the warrant for his execution. In the final scene, the dying monarch recalls the tests she has withstood during her reign.
‘Dedicated by gracious permission to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’, Gloriana was completed in 1953 and first performed as part of that year’s Coronation celebrations. The unjust critical furore surrounding the premiere has now passed into history and the work can be seen as a worthy successor to Billy Budd with which it shares a number of important features. However, the opera is unusual for Britten in that the three acts are generally made up of self-contained set-pieces, rather than the continuous narrative he normally prefers. Although there are scenes of ceremony and pageantry (as befits the occasion for which it was written), the work’s dramatic core is the unfolding relationship between Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex, the Queen torn between her private affection for the Earl and her sense of public duty when he is found guilty of treason and condemned to death.
The sound-world of the opera has an appropriately ‘Elizabethan’ atmosphere, the famous ‘Choral’ and ‘Courtly Dances’ evoking a period flavour without ever lapsing into pastiche. The opera has had a chequered history, but it now seems as though Gloriana has finally taken its rightful place in Britten’s operatic oeuvre.
Reproduced by kind permission of the Britten-Pears Library
Dramatic, Romantic, Tragic
Josephine Barstow/Philip Langridge/Della Jones/Jonathan Summers/Alan Opie/Yvonne Kenny/Richard Van Allan/Bryn Terfel/Janice Watson/Willard White/John Shirley-Quirk/John Mark Ainsley/Peter Hoare/Welsh National Opera and Chorus/Charles Mackerras
Decca Argo 4402132
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