Who is the greatest opera composer of the 20th century? I usually cannot bring myself to decide between Janáček, Strauss, and Britten, but I also usually wonder if I should really even consider the first two on that list as eligible for the award. It seems like it is getting easier to hear more of Britten’s operas and more regularly. This year, I have already heard an excellent Billy Budd from the Washington National Opera, will hear Peter Grimes in Santa Fe, and could even hear Paul Bunyan, of all things, at Central City Opera, if I wanted to make the trip to Colorado. (This season also saw productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Turn of the Screw, at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels.)
You might not think of St. Louis, Missouri, as a place to go to see opera in the summer. However, having recently caught one of the last performances of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis’s season, I can tell you that opera is doing quite well in St. Louis. Here I found a house that was absolutely full, for an opera by Britten, and a late, rather unknown one at that, Gloriana. St. Louis, or rather the outlying but incorporated town of Webster Groves, may not have the allure and physical beauty of the outdoor theater in Santa Fe, for example, but on the evening I arrived, there were well-heeled people enjoying an al fresco dinner in very pretty surroundings next to the theater. Furthermore, the city of St. Louis offers plenty of cultural attractions. The rosters of the four operas this season do not boast singers of the same name power as those booked for Santa Fe, either, except the singer I had really come to St. Louis to hear, Christine Brewer (whose recital I attended in Washington in March and whom I will hear again next month in Santa Fe in Peter Grimes).
Ben Mattison, Photo Journal: Christine Brewer in Britten's Gloriana at Opera Theatre of St. Louis (Playbill, June 21)
Anthony Tommasini, Long Live a Beleaguered Tribute to Britannia (New York Times, June 20)
Sarah Bryan Miller, Opera Theatre's 'Gloriana' is a spectacle fit for a queen (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 12)
Gloriana was composed in honor of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. It was generally considered a failure, for a number of reasons, and has been little performed since. However, this opera, as we might expect from a work by Britten at the height of his compositional powers, is a very satisfying work. Covent Garden missed an opportunity by not reviving Gloriana in 2003, to mark the queen’s 50th anniversary. The generally unflattering portrait of the present queen’s namesake, Elizabeth I, in her latter years, it was probably feared, might have provoked royal disapproval as too close for comfort. In fact, I am amazed that Britten had the temerity to create a work so critical of monarchy when he knew that its modern incarnation would be present at the premiere. In general, I would call the role of Elizabeth unflattering, if not entirely unsympathetic, especially in terms of her age (“the queen needs more artifice to deck her fading bloom,” as Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting tell each other). William Plomer’s libretto was adapted from Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex, and Strachey characterized the queen as someone who had to be cold and cynical because of her position: “In reality, she succeeded by virtue of all the qualities which every hero should be without—dissimulation, pliability, indecision, procrastination, parsimony . . . she had survived because she had been able to meet the extremes around her with her own extremes of cunning and prevarication.”
There was basically one set, four silvery columns that remained in place all evening. A large sunburst with Elizabeth’s rose hung over center stage and was raised and lowered with the change of scene. A circle with the sequence of zodiacal signs was the backdrop throughout the opera, with curtains and a watery backlight for the house by the Thames (Act II, scene 2) and a stage-wide drawing of the city of London for Act III, scene 2. Christine Brewer was magnificent, perhaps not the sort of voice Britten had in mind when creating the role, but supremely effective. The only failure of the opera, as I see it, was Britten’s decision in the final scene to have Elizabeth speak her final series of lines. (Benjy, I wanted to yell out, what were you thinking? You have Christine Brewer on the stage, at the opera’s dramatic high point, and you don’t give her something to sing?) This was one of the things I wish Britten had revised in his considerable work on the opera after the premiere for the Sadler’s Wells performance. Christine Brewer can declaim text perfectly well, but such a thing is a terrible waste of vocal power.
Are Britten’s operas comedies or tragedies? There is not always a clear-cut answer to this question, and Gloriana is no different. The dark side of Britten’s personality, so evident in Billy Budd, Death in Venice, and most disturbingly of all in Turn of the Screw, comes out here only in the conclusion of Act II, when Elizabeth sends Essex off to fight in Ireland (in this production, the two singers spun around as the lighting turned dark and grotesque), and somewhat in the less than satisfying conclusion. Here, the comic wins out, especially when Elizabeth humiliates Essex’s wife, Frances, by parading around in her too-fine gown (to the accompaniment of Shostakovich-like trombone glissandi). Britten also took the idea of royal entertainment quite seriously, including a masque scene (danced beautifully by a good corps de ballet, and principal dancers Anthony Paul Krutzkamp and Janessa Touchet) and various imitations of Elizabethan court dance music. The royal ear was surely diverted, in the best continuation of that tradition, in 1953. (Ms. Brewer’s expanding girth, an embarrassingly common topic on the lips of people seated around me, was an issue only in these dance scenes, which were awkward for her.)
The rest of the vocal cast was good, if not perhaps in the same class as Ms. Brewer. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich (Essex) acted and sang well, particularly in the Lute Song he performs for the queen in Act I, which then returns as a haunting memory later in the opera. Robert Pomakov and Steven Condy were effective as Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Robert Cecil, respectively. The members of the St. Louis Symphony, even though they were spread over several levels (in the multi-tiered and complicated pit, as well as in balcony spaces and on stage and backstage), handled Britten’s interesting score, complete with glissandi and flutter-tongued effects, imitations of bird calls and the bee and fly to which Essex and his rival, Mountjoy, are compared. Singers everywhere—and there are some of you are reading this—if you don’t already, you should think about St. Louis. They do fine work, and you will not be bored.
People who love opera will travel to see it when it's done well. (I took the last image in this post in the parking lot outside the OTSL theater: the license plate on that vehicle was from Michigan.) The plans to build the new Sally S. Levy Opera Center for OTSL are proceeding, which should only enhance the company's appeal. Next year’s festival season at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis will include Rossini’s Barber of Seville, Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel, as well as two operas I will probably try to see, Michael Berkeley’s Jane Eyre (2000) and Kurt Weill’s masterpiece Street Scene (1947). We will bring you reminders and, if all goes well, reviews next summer.