ENO Response is a scheme that offers aspiring writers the opportunity to review opera whilst receiving writing advice and feedback from industry mentors.
The ENO presents a one-off concert performance of Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana at the London Coliseum.
Originally written to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, this concert is staged in tribute to our late monarch. Concerning her namesake Elizabeth I, the last Tudor monarch, the opera depicts a Queen at her strongest, yet perhaps at her most human as her affections for favoured courtier Robert Devereaux, the Earl of Essex, are tested by a series of plots.
Written by one of Britain’s most illustrious twentieth-century composers, Gloriana is one of Benjamin Britten’s greatest large-scale operas.
For this performance, the Responders have been tasked with a review writing brief. They were asked to envisage that they are critics reviewing Gloriana for The i, the national broadsheet newspaper. When writing their reviews, they had to consider The i’s audience, journalistic tone of voice, and style of writing.
ENO Responders 22/23
Commissioned to mark her coronation, scheduled to celebrate her platinum jubilee, but performed to honour her memory – ENO’s single performance of ‘Gloriana’ was a bittersweet tribute to Elizabeth II.
Although Britten’s ironic presentation of the Tudor monarchy provoked somewhat of a mixed reception at the 1953 premiere, it was welcomed by a packed London Coliseum in 2022. Set towards the end of the first Elizabethan age, it explores the relationship between an ageing sovereign and the Earl of Essex. An eventual betrayal reveals the Queen’s human flaws and desires, leaving her ruined by loneliness.
Director Ruth Knight’s ‘concert-staging’ kept music at the forefront of the opera. Lacking set or props, the stage was decorated by only a stepped platform (for the chorus) and a singular wooden throne. Written historical context was displayed during the overture, setting the scene for action to begin. Questionable projected images of flowers, fish and ‘The Creation of Adam’ appeared later in the performance, interfering with the clean, minimalist aesthetic.
Costume was a particularly interesting feature of the production, creating a visual representation of the social hierarchy. Virtually everyone except the Queen was dressed in black, maintaining her position as the constant focal point. The one exception of this was in Act II, when Lady Essex appeared in an ornate purple dress; she immediately suffered the consequences of her disrespect.
On her role debut as Elizabeth I, Christine Rice’s multi-faceted characterisation was simply astonishing. She established a clear dichotomy between monarch and human, that could have easily been confused for two separate performers. Intimate moments of vulnerability interjected the predominantly reserved persona; particularly striking was her sole moment of prayer, at the end of Act I.
Robert Murray’s assertive performance of the Earl of Essex was fittingly arrogant. The shifting dynamic between these two protagonists gave the plot impetus; the love personified by the second lute song was quickly displaced by hatred. Other notable cast members include Duncan Rock as a charming Lord Mountjoy and Sir Willard White in his cameo as the Recorder of Norwich.
Martyn Brabbins conducted with both strength and sensitivity, drawing a powerful sound from the orchestra. The brass section was especially impressive in the regal, fanfare-like sections of the score. After the interval, instrumentalists spilled over to the sides of the stage, contributing to the concert atmosphere. Undoubtedly, the most spectacular element of the performance was the ENO chorus, adding a layer of warmth that can only be achieved by voices.
Although not the composer’s most highly regarded work, ‘Gloriana’ can still impress in 2022. Of course, full-scale productions should remain the focus of the company, but this performance was refreshingly music-focused – completely shaped and driven by the score.
When Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953, her succession was hailed as the New Elizabethan Age. The war was over, Edmund Hillary had conquered Everest – and Benjamin Britten, at the height of his popularity, presented Gloriana, a bizarre tribute to a new, youthful queen. Set in the later years of Elizabeth I’s reign, we get a portrait of a sly-tongued, ageing, childless, essentially vulnerable monarch, all to a score that was avant-garde for the time. It was not well-received.
Nearly eight decades later, in its one-off revival to commemorate the Queen’s death, the ENO has given this strange piece a new lease of life. Advertised as a concert, what the packed house got was a simple and effective set-up with Sarah Bowern’s lavish Elizabethan costumes, to the backdrop of a stellar chorus.
And Ruth Knight’s staging is brilliant. The historical background is projected in a title sequence, setting up the rather complicated political context. Black and white projections become hands raised in rebellion, leaves falling from a tree, or, in the setting of Tyrone’s rebellion, the outline of Ireland. A throne in centre-stage shows us the enduring symbolic power of the crown, contrasted with the humanity of the woman behind it.
The opera is still odd. In the first half, we watch characters watching a joust – without seeing any of the joust itself. Then we see Elizabeth settling a petty dispute among her two favourites. It’s not riveting stuff.
Luckily it picks up in the second half, and between court vignettes and treasonous machinations this is a powerful watch. As the queen’s favourite Devereux turns traitor and Elizabeth confronts her own status as an aging woman beneath all the pomp of monarchy, this packs an emotional punch. A music-less scene towards the end in which she confronts her age is potent.
The quality of the cast – in which Sir Willard White takes a mere cameo – and the gusto of the orchestra, which spills out of the pit to include Tudor wind instruments and a percussion group, shine throughout.
As Elizabeth, Christine Rice is a warm mezzo, and moves convincingly from mastery of court politics to loneliness and consciousness of impending death. By the time we see her vacillating over whether to save or condemn her favourite (a very expressive Robert Murray as Devereux – a role created by Peter Pears), she has shown us a spectrum of emotion. As his scheming and proud sister Penelope, Eleanor Dennis stands out as particularly strong, but there are no weak links in this cast.
This is a revival that by all accounts out-does the original. It is a glorious tribute to the late queen, and a beautifully staged production.
Before The Crown, there was Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana, the opera written to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. Like the hit Netflix series, Gloriana zooms in on one particular, seemingly obscure episode in the reign of Elizabeth I, the late Queen’s namesake. It’s an opera about consequential political decisions, courtiers undermining the Sovereign’s power, and the weight of wearing the crown. You won’t find Princess Diana or recent royals in Gloriana. Instead, you’ll find who history remembers as the Virgin Queen, the Faerie Queen, or simply Gloriana. If one steps into the Queen’s psyche, ENO’s Gloriana is surprisingly rewarding.
History remembers Elizabeth I as larger than life: some say vain and imposing, others whisper conspiratorially of her sex-drive, while some assert she was chaste and dutiful. In ENO’s Gloriana, Christine Rice characterises Queen Elizabeth as brooding and refined. Rice strides onstage as an authoritative soprano, commanding attention and respect. She’s intimidating and snide, but withdrawn.
Rice’s characterisation works brilliantly. Behind closed doors, Elizabeth I is expressive. During private audiences, Rice is coquettish and giddy. When awoken in the middle of the night in her dressing gown, she is weary and self-serious. Rice’s nuanced Queen Elizabeth provides the consistency to carry the show’s heftier themes, while providing a startlingly strong vocal performance.
The night was a one-off concert staging. The staging was stripped back, but effective. Entering the London Coliseum, the stage was bare, but for a gilded throne centre stage. As the story unfolds, the “set” is created by black-and-white illustrations projected onto a black scrim. In moments where the men surrounding the Queen challenge her, their backlit shadows tower over the monarch. The minimal staging allows the music to take centre stage.
Martyn Brabbin’s expressively conducts an orchestra is both in the pit and on stage, with a chamber orchestra in the apron in Acts Two and Three. The palace ball begins onstage in an elegant, refined, and tightly contained chamber orchestra before swelling into a thoroughly 20th century symphony. This allows the world of Elizabeth I’s court to feel personal and intimate before expanding to an overwhelming power.
At times, the orchestra struggled to keep pace with Britten’s music. Fast passages failed to reach the crisp, clarity demanded by the score. Ultimately, it’s forgiven as this concert is one-night-only.
The chorus creates the imposing presence of the public. Singing from choir risers, they loom behind the action. When praising Gloriana, the chorus fills the Coliseum with bright optimism. Later, the chorus whispers rumours across the stage. In the denouement of Gloriana, the chorus sings cascading laments to a dying Queen, reverently tying together the show’s emotional world.
Gloriana is an opera that resonated a bit more in 2022, the year of the Platinum Jubilee and the passing of the Queen. In words that map a legacy of both Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II, the show closes with a tribute to the Queen’s “great fame and great mind.” ENO’s Gloriana is subtle and refined, with just enough scandal to remind us why we can’t stop watching the crown.
It began with a duel. That is how Benjamin Britten’s opera Gloriana should have opened, rather than a damp prologue that failed to set the scene for the tail-end of Elizabeth I’s reign. Originally written for the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the ENO staged a special one-night only performance as a tribute to the late monarch to a full auditorium at the Coliseum.
Following the court of Elizabeth I as the struggle to find a successor heightens towards the end of her reign, set against a backdrop of the fear of foreign invasion, ENO removed the glamour of a full-blown production for this staged concert.
With little production to hide behind, instead using minimalist black screens with holographic illustrations to set the scene, Ruth Knight’s direction showed creativity and innovation for an opera whose content can often be quite dense to navigate.
The choice of mezzo-soprano Christine Rice for the principal role was interesting in the hope that her lower range would bring a sense of toughness to the monarch. However, her delicate vocal approach in Act One meant that the fragility of Britten’s erratic score was clear to see; there was little substance on which to grab onto any emotion.
Rice was the main event of this opera, and the final scenes were gut-wrenching to watch as the ageing monarch contemplated her own mortality in a world obsessed with her succession. Other performers paled alongside her as the concert continued as she warmed into the role, although David Soar’s Sir Walter Raleigh was a close match.
There is so much variety in Britten’s score that the decision to split the three-act opera into two instead left a lagging feeling as attention grew thin while the libretto lingered onto its own smugness. Act Two Scene One’s Norwich setting felt heavy to watch, and not even Innocent Masuku’s rich voice as The Spirit of the Masque could keep the boredom away.
Gloriana seems an odd choice for the ENO to use as a ‘meaningful tribute’ for Queen Elizabeth II, given its failure to redeem the monarch in any way. However, the final scenes’ recurring motif of an old woman in a nightgown, helpless as her body declines, felt poignant.
The rawness of these scenes was dimmed by including the intended voiceover of Elizabeth I and her advisers about her successor James I. This robbed Rice’s frailty on stage when a moment of quiet reflection could have been a more fitting tribute.
There was a distinct absence in this staged concert of peace. The constant movement of cast and chorus and ever-changing screens created uneasiness for the audience; it lacked a solid foundation on which to build a celebratory reflection.
Before Netflix’s The Crown and Harry and Meghan’s docuseries, there was Benjamin Britten’s 1953 opera Gloriana. Like twitter-users across the country, Gloriana speculates on the public and salacious private lives of the British monarchy. For Britten however, the target is the humanisation of one of the world’s (then) most powerful women: Queen Elizabeth I.
Focusing on the psyche of an ageing Queen was an unorthodox choice for the opera’s initial commission as a coronation-celebration for the 27-year-old Queen Elizabeth II. Nearly 70 years after its first performance however, Gloriana’s focus on the pressures of rule makes for a thoughtful tribute to our late Queen.
It takes time for the royal veneer to crack however as Gloriana revels – a little too much – in the pageantry and pomp of royal public ceremony rather than developing a compelling narrative. The opening trumpets, sprightly violins and dramatic percussion give way to the measured rhythms of stately dance music. Martyn Brabbins conducts with vitality, musicians slip in and out of audience view, and the ENO chorus is beautifully attuned to the emotions of each scene. Unfortunately, the plot cannot help but come to a standstill.
Gloriana picks up once it turns its attention to the Queen’s personal life. The Earl of Essex’s “melting [love] song” draws the audience in just as it does Queen Elizabeth on stage as Robert Murray sings with sidling affection. Christine Rice as Queen Elizabeth I is initially underwhelming but soon warms into a wonderfully petty diva, and her soprano remains effortless throughout. Her nit-picking Sir Robert Cecil (Charles Rice) is a particular joy to watch.
Director Ruth Knight’s stripped-back concert staging, which includes lavish Tudor costumes but no backdrop, sets the scene without overwhelming the production in fussy tradition. Effective lighting and video design come together to create a polished, attractive show.
When a Lady-in-Waiting (Alexandra Oomens) sings with the ENO chorus about the Queen’s beauty regimes, Gloriana begins a pertinent dialogue on femininity and ageing. I only wish it had started sooner. Queen Elizabeth I famously wielded beauty as a weapon of propaganda, and a deeper exploration of this strategy, and its imagined impact on her psyche, could have opened an interesting discussion on the construction of public image today.
Fewer expositional conversations about tournaments, and more exploration of these themes would have been welcome, but overall, ENO’s one-off performance does Gloriana justice. Well-performed and artfully staged, this production stands as a reflective piece on not only the life of Queen Elizabeth I, but on the pressures of rule and public image four our late Queen Elizabeth II.
In a timely act of precognitive programming, English National Opera (ENO) have put on Benjamin Britten’s opera Gloriana to pay tribute to the late Queen Elizabeth II. Having written the piece to celebrate her coronation in 1953, it made a very fitting production to remember commemerate her.
The opera is an odd work, melding 20th-century harmonies with courtly dances, Tudor courtly politics with philosophical musings on life, the universe and everything. The dialogue in William Plomer’s beautiful libretto prompts deep thoughts about the nature of mortality and power (much machoistic jostling and the fight that opens act one) but is also definitely of Plomer’s time and his view of Tudor England. However, problematic musings on the effects of ageing, given the shock of seeing Elizabeth I in act three without her wig and makeup, still reasonate today with our cultural obsession with cosmetics and the body beautiful.
Ruth Knight used minimalistic staging to great effect with her Tudor-costumed cast, whose acting was compelling for the most part, although some of Cecil’s (Charles Rice) facial expressions defied description. Concert stagings sometimes feel dry due to the absence of substantive set pieces, but a throne and a projector are all that was required to fill this production. In fact, Sarah Bowern’s period costume design could have felt stuffy in a fully detailed set but shone against this black box backdrop.
Christine Rice was moving and plaintive as Elizabeth I, who is surprisingly relatable even while occupying a rank that few will ever come close to attaining. Plomer’s libretto is partly a psychological treatment of the Queen, partly a royal court drama. Robert Murray’s Essex didn’t match Rice in the singing or acting departments. However, he still performed well alongside the rest of the cast. Rice was jaw-dropping during act one’s ‘Soliloquy and Prayer’ where she had every ear in the theatre and sung effortlessly with sensitive orchestral backing. The opera ends starkly, with Elizabeth I lying in melancholy contemplation to a dimming light, a white nightgown against a sea of black staging.
The music is where this production is at its strongest. Martyn Brabbins, ENO’s Music Director, conducted to brilliant effect. The woodwind solos that opened the second act were tackled with the utmost precision and breathtakingly coordinated; the rest of the playing is equally strong. Emotionally, Brabbins used Britten’s score to pull us into the story’s world, particularly as the ‘Tyrone’ theme gradually swallowed the courtly dances at the close of the second act to foreshadow Essex’s fall from grace. The chorus was also superb, acting as fates to our cast’s journey and holding their own in long sections without the orchestra for support. Dressed in all-black, they felt like a part of the wall behind them, only with eyes to see and tongues to speak.
Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana was first performed only six days after the coronation of the late Queen in 1953, and took the first English monarch with the name Elizabeth for its subject. English National Opera scheduled a jubilee staging but ended up staging a memorial. Director Ruth Knight clearly took inspiration from George Osborne’s fiscal policy for her austere set: props were few but potent, and there was no tacky Elizabethan backdrop to add unnecessary melodrama.
If only she had cut the fat from some of the two and a half hours of plot, too – there is a reason it is not one of Britten’s most celebrated works. Almost an entire scene is dedicated to a masque telling an also-ran story about the marriage between Time and Concorde, which, given the stripped back set, was difficult to follow immediately before a much-needed interval. A relatively short scene set on the streets of London could also have been scrapped since its music was entirely unmemorable, and it did no service to the plot. Worst of all, the segment dragged an otherwise measured performance into the realm of landfill period drama: imagine ordering an AI to write a cheap opera using William Hogarth’s Gin Lane and Beer Street for inspiration.
Yet still – you may not be able to polish a turd, but if you’re going to try, you should use the right tools for the job and give it some elbow grease. And that’s exactly what the ENO did. Under conductor Martyn Brabbins the orchestra played with great feeling, and they tastefully explored wide ranges of space and dynamics – when certain members of the orchestra moved from their ordinary spots, it was noticeable and poignant.
Mezzo Christine Rice portrayed Elizabeth I (aka Gloriana) with gentle authority, in the manner of our own late Elizabeth. She was particularly commendable because the libretto paints a picture of a monarch at odds with her stereotypically weak femininity; a 12 year old could have written most of the comparisons between the Queen and a rose. Nevertheless, she gradually teased out the inner cognition of her role as she saw fit – which is what Gloriana should be all about. Tenor Robert Murray, who assumed the mantel of the Earl of Essex, evoked the indignation of Kier Starmer on a Wednesday morning while ultimately making ample room for the protagonist.
Gloriana was by no means perfect, but if it weren’t a one off, I’d heartily recommend going to watch it. Everyone – orchestra, audience, players seasoned and new – performed with conviction, and the unforeseen tribute was sweet and fitting.
Gloriana is one of Britten’s largest scale operas, a tribute to our late monarch written at the time of her coronation and presented here as a one off concert directed by Ruth Knight and ably conducted by Martyn Brabbins.
The scene is set with one lonesome golden throne, atmospheric trumpets and a black empty minimalist stage. Today’s Gen Z understands all about dressing to impress and Queen Elizabeth I would definitely come first place. While everyone around her was constantly in a dull monochrome black, Christine Rice, who played Queen Elizabeth I was always in a classy ruff, wide skirts in a variety of rich colours, a dazzling ruby rock on her ring finger, and mesmerising jewels whose reflected lights dripped down from her neck to her torso.
Now I know the current fashion statement is a buss down wrist or diamond encrusted chain but you simply cannot compare this with the elegance oozing out of Elizabeth; the true embodiment of a classy, powerful queen. Her stance, her glorious glare into the audience and graceful mannerisms really made me feel like she was a powerful Queen. Costume designer Sarah Bowren and Makeup & hair artist Taylor Rands really pulled the production together with their visions and it truly felt like we had travelled in a Time Machine back to the 1590s.
Although Christine caught our wandering eyes, one thing that was impossible to miss was the chorus. An incredible blend of voices and Britten’s perfect harmonies resulted in goose-bumps all over my body. I really enjoyed the chorus as it is something i am not familiar with seeing in the Opera. The lack of action on stage caused me to focus more closely on the music, and the orchestra was equally impressive. The clarinettist was sensational and the touch of the trumpets added a pleasant change of sounds. Frances, Countess of Essex played by soprano Paula Murrihy and tenor Robert Murray’s Robert, Earl of Essex both had incredible voices and voice projection that you could hear at the back of the hall. Alexandra Oomens who played a lady in waiting was remarkably good at portraying her stylish, cheeky character.
Although the review’s title is a little harsh, I must emphasise that it wasn’t necessarily boring, it just lacked the magic of an actual staged opera, with lights, action and music all coming together. The feeling of walking out of those distinguished ENO double doors after watching a breath-taking operatic production is unmatched, but unfortunately Gloriana lacked that last night. I would definitely recommend this production to a lover of history. Gloriana was just simply not my cup of tea but there’s no denying that everyone who took part is incredibly talented.
Love and duty, power and ambition, these passionate motivations wrest for the crown in Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana (1953). Written for the coronation celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II, Gloriana is a snapshot from the courtly life of her Tudor predecessor Elizabeth I. Gloriana focusses on Elizabeth I’s relationship with one of her preferred courtiers and her own slow demise at the twilight of her reign.
ENO has put on a once-off concert production (no sets and limited props/costumes) of Gloriana.
Benjamin Britten was a prolific British composer during the middle of the 20th century. Known for his personal, wrenchingly psychological works such as Peter Grimes (1945). Britten’s subtle musical style is not to everyone’s taste. Gloriana is no exception. At the opening night in 1953 reception was so tepid Britten felt compelled to lean from his box and exhort the crowd to applause, hissing “Clap damn you! Clap!”
A monarchically focused opera seems apt given Her Majesty’s death earlier this year and the continuing dramas surrounding the royal family. Viewers of The Crown will feel used to the intimate personal exploration of the life of a monarch.
Given this context how does Gloriana measure up? Poorly, particularly in act one. Gloriana was reminiscent of watching a bad historical drama, filled with un-relatable lords and ladies, suffused with this bizarre almost hagiographic image of the wise and glorious Elizabeth I. The chorus and Elizabeth’s court of fawning leather-clad lickspittles hardly pause for breath between extolling her virtues. A stilted first act puts off the drama until acts 2 and 3. The awkward storyline is not helped by William Plomer’s uninspiring libretto, libretti are not usually known for their great poetry but Gloriana’s is doggerel. Plomer wobbles between uncertain rhyming and metrical schemes, the use of period language works relatively well but only serves to underscore the feeling of watching a GCSE history documentary.
To truly appreciate Britten’s score one needs to be a fan of the composer. I am not. Britten uses a blinding variety of instruments, constantly moving musicians and a vast chorus to produce nothing more memorable than a few 16th century dances and an elephantine march which accompanies Elizabeth after she has ruined a courtier’s dress.
The ENO performance was outstanding. Christine Rice was perfect for the role of Elizabeth I, performing with haughty dignity in public and breaking self-doubt in private scenes. Sir Willard White was a treat to hear in two roles, a brilliant bass-baritone voice. The ENO chorus is always strong and Gloriana gave them a chance to shine.
The lack of props did nothing to dent the engaging power of such magnificent signers. It was a shame that they weren’t performing a better opera.
Ruth Knight’s decision to put on a half-staged production of Britten’s Gloriana for one night only was rather odd – there was no occasion that marked December 8th, while the concert staging of an otherwise uncut opera was unusual in the ENO’s grand performance space. There was, however, great potential to respond to the Queen’s recent passing and reflect on her reign, yet Knight’s production failed to fully capitalise on this.
The ENO’s pared-down staging put greater emphasis on the quality of singing, which held the production together well: the onstage chorus interfered surprisingly little with the dramatic narrative, and shone in their shifting harmonies and soft, resonant tones. The Earl of Essex (Robert Murray) performed beautifully too, with a mellow tenor that ebbed and flowed without losing its shape (even if it was less immediately resonant). Lady Penelope (Eleanor Dennis) was even better, with a silvered, shimmering voice that slightly put Queen Elizabeth’s (Christine Rice) soprano to shame, although the latter, too, was a strong performer, summoning the vocal richness that her role required. Her internal conflict in scenes with Essex, and her balance between strength and indecision, vigour and age, was excellently acted. Martyn Brabbins conducted expansively yet precisely, leading not only the orchestra and the chorus, but the innovative addition of string and wind quartets. However, with only weak narrative support, Britten’s score started to resemble harmonious incidental music, with regular flashes of pomp and grandeur that begin to lose their effect, and for all the production’s musical accomplishments, it could not be saved from an inescapable dullness.
For the plot to succeed, the audience must be emotionally invested in its characters, and the fundamentally static nature of the concert staging torpedoed this. Although there were valiant attempts to break out of this, such as the lovers’ tryst in the garden, or the tension between Elizabeth, Cecil (Charles Rice) and Raleigh (David Soar), both of whom performed and sung excellently, the show dragged. The masque, a court entertainment characterised by lively music and dancing, was performed by a motionless chorus as the motionless principals stood by. Character-wise, Essex was seen only as violent, impulsive and incompetent – it was hard to understand why the Queen spent so much time pining over him.
Elizabeth herself, aside from the repeated, unsubtle emphasis on how she ‘loved her people’ (disregarding the basic rule of ‘show, don’t tell’) was not a markedly sympathetic figure, while the repeated references to conquering Irish rebels hardly helped to create a parallel tribute between Elizabeths I and II, picking out, as the common factor of both their reigns, Irish oppression. The pithy line ‘the art of government is in procrastination, and in silence and delay’ sat similarly badly with an audience who has experienced nearly three years of Covid (or indeed general) mismanagement from the current government. We are lucky to have the ENO, a true public good, but Gloriana was certainly not them at their public best.