Friday 21 June 2013

Truly transcendent - Susan Bullock and Toby Spence in Gloriana

Britten Gloriana the Royal Opera House 2013, (c) Clive Barda
I first saw Britten's Gloriana in the 1970's when English National Opera took their production (originally mounted for Sylvia Fisher in 1966) on tour with Ava June in the title role. I rather fell in love with the opera and June's magnificent performance rather disguised the opera's shortcomings. ENO revived the production in 1984 for Sarah Walker and Anthony Rolfe Johnson (equally amazing). And that seemed to be it, the opera languished. Opera North's production in 1994 directed by Phyllida Lloyd with Josephine Barstow and Tom Randle was a thrilling dramatic event and seemed to mark some sort of rehabilitation. Whilst Opera North did revive the production and toured it, even performing it at Covent Garden (where I saw it in 1994), Gloriana remained something of a problem child. Now, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the premiere and of the coronation, the Royal Opera House has mounted a new production directed by Richard Jones with Susan Bullock in the title role and Toby Spence as Essex. The conductor was Paul Daniel, who also conducted the Opera North production. The opera was a co-production with Hamburg State Opera where the production has already appeared with a different cast. We saw the production's London premiere on 20 June 2013.

You can't help feeling that if the work's initial reception had been warmer, then Britten might have lavished a bit more interest on it and perhaps revised it. It is easy to pick holes in the piece, it is perhaps too long, there are too many small characters, structurally the work is uneven and the scene for the ballad singer in act three is simply an oddity. Britten extracted the choral dances from Gloriana and they have a successful life independent of the opera. Lovely though they are, you can't help feeling that the work's second act would be stronger and tauter if these and the courtly dances were drastically pruned, so that the drama came over better.

Britten and his librettist William Plomer were aware of the work's iconic nature, being performed as part of the Coronation season and they attempt to mix the public and the private, alternating scenes in a manner akin Verdi's Aida. This gives the work something of the nature of a pageant, and another work which it reminds me of is Shakespeare's All is True, the late play on Henry VIII which mixes drama with masque like scenes.

For the new production, Richard Jones and designer Ultz seem to have taken this pageant-like theme as the basis for their production. I have to confess that when I read the reviews of the Hamburg State Opera premiere of the production (reviewed in Opera magazine) my heart sank. But in fact, on encountering the production live, I found much to enjoy.

The production opened in a village hall type theatre with dignitaries waiting. As the prelude started, an actress dressed like the Queen in 1954 arrived and was greeted. Then we were treated to a pageant of English monarchs going backwards from the present done in a slightly jokey manner, with a troupe of school boys at the front of the stage holding up cards with the name of the dynasty. These boys reoccurred in the staging, coming on before each scene to hold up cards to indicate where it was set.

As the opera proper started the front proscenium of the village hall stage was lifted up so that we saw not only the performance of Britten's opera but also the people helping to stage it, including a stage manager cueing the curtain, a main raising and lowering an imaginary curtain and a plethora of other details. The setting was plain but complex, the sets were quite basic but surrounding them Jones and Ultz had created an enormous amount of detail. There was a director who hovered anxiously (and seemed to be revealed at the end as the boyfriend of the actor playing Essex), for the Norwich scene there was a group of hand-bell ringers, the boys chorus in act three had a female director who stood in the wings giving them encouragement. In a highly practical detail, the chorus for the choral dances were conducted from 'off stage' by their director, who was in fact Stephen Westrop the chorus master for these performances and who was actually conducting them (rather than Paul Daniel who stopped at this point).

All these details could have been a fussy distraction, but they seemed to smooth over the clumsier cracks in the dramaturgy and my main complaint is that the scene changes (which were done in full visibility), took rather a long time as everything was done manually.

What made the production work was that there was a pair of incandescent performances from Susan Bullock and Toby Spence.

The role of Gloriana was written for Joan Cross, a dramatic soprano who had sung Brunnhilde, Sieglinde and the Marschallin. Though she was only 53 at the time the opera was performed, Britten seems to have written the role in a way to reflect her voice and treated the upper register with great care. The role has few major melodic moments, you can't imagine a soprano being able to excerpt anything (in fact the only real aria in the piece is Essex's lute song Happy we). Instead we are treated to a glorious character portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, and the work requires a great singing actress.

Bullock's voice showed no sign of the strains of doing four Ring Cycles last year at Covent Garden and throughout she was admirably focussed and flexible. Keeping her vibrato under control, she sang was a good sense of line and with brilliant diction. Though there were surtitles, you didn't need them. Britten is always a great setter of words and here Bullock showed herself to be immensely sympathetic, using the words for great dramatic effect (something that isn't really required so much in Wagner). Granted the top notes could sometimes be a little wayward, but this seemed all part of the drama.

In presence she was very commanding. Though she lacked the real Elizabeth's height (and rather more resembled Bette Davis in the film) she was a towering presence on stage, and brought out the changeableness of Elizabeth's nature. The closing scene, mixing speech and song, where elements of the opera are recalled as the Queen drifts off, was handled brilliantly by Bullock. She has an attractive, nicely modulated speaking voice which complemented her singing voice well and the ending was, for me, profound moving.

As Essex, Toby Spence both looked and sounded attractive. His voice had a remarkable firmness as well as flexibility and he showed no sign of his illness of the other year. Essex isn't really a light role (Pears thought he had been rather miscast in it) but it does require flexibility and lightness, but also strength. Spence brought great beauty of tone to the lute songs in act one, notably Happy we whilst being impressive in the more martial bits. It made you regret that the centring of the opera on Gloriana robbed us of a final death scene for Essex.

Spence was wonderfully impulsive and charismatic, with a believable relationship with Bullock's Gloriana. Their scenes together, the love scene in act one and the scene in act three where he burst in on her, fairly crackled. Perhaps the most touching and beautiful moment was the point in act three when the pair of them recalled the lute song, Happy we.

The other characters surround these two and form cameo roles rather than fully developed characters. Mark Stone was an admirably Lord Mountjoy, bluff and imperious in act one and then joining the conspiracy with aplomb. Jeremy Carpenter made a sympathetic Sir Robert Cecil (probably more sympathetic than his real life counterpart). Benjamn Bevan was nicely pointed as Henry Cuffe. Clive Bayley did what he could with Sir Walter Raleigh, imbuing Raleigh's occasional utterances with great character and forming a strong stage presence.

Kate Royal and Patricia Bardon were Lady Rich and Frances Devereux, both highly sympathetically performed and each coming into their own when they appeal to the Queen for clemency at the end of act three. Bardon immensely touching and Royal brilliantly imperious. The quartet in act two, when the four conspirators get together was another notable moment.

In fact, that was the big strength of the production, that all concerned were strong singing actors, so that they made the smallest moments tell. Jones had clearly got a good ensemble performance from his team and it was a hugely vivid one too. The lead roles are required not only to sing, but to dance. The courtly dances, particularly the lavolta, have a dramatic role to play and it needs the participation of the principals. The lavolat was a lively jumping dance, and we even had Susan Bullock being lifted into the air by two of the dancers.

Nadine Livingston made a sympathetic lady in waiting, bringing a touching quality to her solo as Gloriana is dressed after Essex's bursting in at the beginning of act three. Jeremy White was a nicely doddery Recorder of Norwich, David Butt Philip the master of ceremonies, Carol Rowlands a very pointed housewife and Michel de Souza the city crier. Brindley Sherratt did magnificently as the blind ballad-singer, though I have to confess that I find that section of the opera the most unconvincing.

The lead dancers in the choral dances were Lake Loutaris-Smith and Giulia Pazzaglia, with choreography by Lucy Burge. The setting here must be noted, as Ultz had designed a huge montage of vegetables spelling E.R, a complement to his earlier design of Gloriana's coach completely of flowers.

The Royal Opera Chorus were in fine voice, and whilst the choral dances were not quite perfect they made a very strong impact.

Paul Daniel (one of the few conductors, I suspect, to have conducted two different productions of the opera) conducted with great sympathy and attention to detail. His accompaniment of the singers was very fine indeed, but we never got lost in detail and he kept the bigger sweep of things.

I'm not sure that this production is anything but an occasional piece. Jones, Ultz and there cast succeeded brilliantly in bringing the opera to life. Though I am still not certain whether it would bear revival regularly. The opera needs a pair of extremely strong singers in the lead, and Bullock and Spence gave truly transcendent performances.

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  1. Apologies for commenting on a blog post. A friend and I were reminiscing about seeing Gloriana in Birmingham in the 1970s. I assume this the production you refer to. Thanks for the info that Ava June sang the role of the Queen. But, please, can you remember who was Essex? Many thanks

    1. Yes, I think we are talking about the same production (there was only one, ENO revived it in the 1984 for Sarah Walker and Anthony Rolfe Johnson). DOing some rooting around, the tenor appears to have been David Hillman, though whether he went on tour or not I don't know.


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