For, in hindsight, Gloriana was astonishingly provocative. Britten confronted the young queen with a darkly grotesque exposé of her ancestor, (an equivalent cannot be imagined in another art form – a Francis Bacon portrait?), and no wonder its political messages were sourly received by civil servants and dignitaries: despotism and delay were Queen Bess’s weapons of choice.
Susan Bullock owns the role: in commanding, if sometimes querulous, voice. She moves from beneficence to crabbed jealousy on a beat, radiating authority and, in the devastating scene before her dressing table, dishevelled vulnerability. For those who remember Josephine Barstow’s magisterial performance for Opera North in 1993 Bullock perhaps lacks the requisite hauteur, but she’s a ferocious presence. Toby Spence is an ideal Essex, bristling, sexy and impetuous, there’s a genuine frisson between the two in the lute scene, which makes their final meeting in her bedchamber so painful. Mark Stone, too, as his one-time rival Mountjoy sings handsomely, while Kate Royal’s elegant, ambitious Lady Rich is sharply characterised and contrasts well with Patricia Bardon’s creamy-voiced Lady Essex. Jeremy Carpenter and Clive Bayley are utterly at home as Robert Cecil and Walter Raleigh.
Set in a blindingly strip-lit, pre-fab village institute, Jones’s affectionate staging is shot with a subtle humour so local one wonders how it went down at its Hamburg premiere (a Danish critic next to me was baffled by the corrugated iron roof and the marrows). Ultz’s designs convey a Ladybird book version of post-war Tudorama with considerable charm. On-stage hand bells, raucous trumpets and drums fit the conceit like a glove.
But there’s an elephant in the room: the music. Unlike Britten’s great operas, Gloriana’s musical material lacks distinction: we miss the motivic tension and unity of Billy Budd, Peter Grimes or The Turn of the Screw. Yes, as a homage to Verdi and to opera seria, its intentions are different, and yes its colours are uniquely blazing, but too many of the numbers are noisy, clumsy or diffuse (not always helped by Paul Daniel’s lack of focus in the pit).
The logic of its chosen form imposed a structure on Britten that did not always inspire. The Norwich masque in Act 2 is frankly tedious; indeed, Imogen Holst later said that ‘he had absolutely no idea what to do’ with it. The ballad scene (wonderfully sung by Brindley Sherratt) is also laboured, as is Raleigh’s tale of the bee and the fly in Act 1: one can see where the accusation of ‘Boriana’ arose. Still, when the music kindles into life – as it does in the spare, urgent scoring of Act 3, in the electric scenes between the ladies and the queen, and the conspiring tryst in Act 2 - it is riveting. Who has ever jested so grotesquely with tuba and trombone as when the Queen steals Lady Essex’s dress? Where in opera is a consolation more poignant than the Lady in Waiting’s song as the bald queen is dressed? The way Britten weaves memories of Essex’s lute song through the ensuing drama is devastatingly effective. In the end these strokes of genius outweigh its faults.
Gloriana: on at the Royal Opera House until 6 July