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Britten Operas on DVD, Part 4

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Britten, Gloriana, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Kathryn Harries, Jean Rigby, Richard Van Allan, English National Opera, Lionel Friend (1984, DVD released on October 31, 2006)
Benjamin Britten composed Gloriana in honor of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, when it was generally considered a failure. However, as I learned at a performance by Opera Theater of St. Louis, this is a satisfying work, as we might expect from a work by Britten at the height of his compositional powers. Covent Garden missed an opportunity by not reviving Gloriana in 2003, to mark the queen’s 50th anniversary. In retrospect, the St. Louis production (directed by Colin Graham, with costumes by David C. Woolard and sets by Neil Patel) may owe something to this staging done at English National Opera. As recorded in this film version by Derek Bailey in 1984 (remastered from VHS last year), it is somewhat similar in style. The St. Louis, while not a copy, seems cut from the same cloth.

My disappointment with the opera's conclusion stands: Britten made a mistake by having Elizabeth give speeches some of the most emotional moments in the final scene. The wonderful tension he has built up throughout the libretto -- an aging queen beset with the cares of state and the intrigues of younger men vying for her attention, and then forced to destroy the only love she has known -- is deflated as soon as Elizabeth starts to talk. Furthermore, this does not help a generally unflattering portrait of Elizabeth I (probably one of the reasons why the opera was not revived in 2003, for the present monarch's 50th anniversary). William Plomer’s libretto was adapted from Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex, in which 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.”

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Film by Phyllida Lloyd, with Josephine Barstow (2000)
The music, however, is glorious, befitting its subject matter. Britten clearly enjoyed his recreation of late Renaissance court life, with superb imitations of court dances, beautifully choreographed in this production. The orchestration is ingenious, especially the numerous brass fanfares, which create the opera's regal atmosphere. In this DVD, Sarah Walker gives an emotionally driven performance as Queen Elizabeth I, and Anthony Rolfe-Johnson is strong as Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. The supporting cast is all good, with particularly fine singing from Jean Rigby, as Essex's long-suffering wife, Frances. In the only other version of Gloriana on DVD, director Phyllida Lloyd made significant cuts to the opera and made a film more about the staging of the opera, although I understand that Josephine Barstow's performance in the title role is worth the effort. That means that this DVD from ENO is a must-have for Britten enthusiasts.

Mezzo-soprano Jean Rigby will come to Washington next month, to sing a concert with the Nash Ensemble of London (March 20), including the world premiere of a new piece by David Matthews and Stravinsky's Three Songs from William Shakespeare.

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