Britten is a tricky composer. Reflecting his own career dilemmas, his operas usually admit a convincing, superficial reading, but there is always a whole universe of half-formed truths lurking in the shadows. As an interpreter, it is tempting to prefer clarity to depth, public to private, downplaying the contradictions in which Britten's inspiration thrived. This is nowhere truer than in Gloriana, where this clash becomes the sheer foundation of the opera and the cornerstone of one of his most brilliant and fascinating scores. For this new production, Ivor Bolton and Sir David McVicar have teamed up to create an unapologetic Gloriana, exploiting its fruitful conflicts and exposing its complexity. The result, enhanced by a great cast, is an unqualified success and the long-needed vindication of a neglected masterpiece.

In this Gloriana, Bolton's affinity with Britten goes beyond a clear account of the score to become a truly original contribution, thanks in part to the good shape of the Orchestra of the Teatro Real. He showed no fear of revealing the darkest soul of the score, underlining the dissonances that corrupt the Green Leaves theme at the end of Elizabeth's monologue in Act 1 and making the most of the vitriol of the brass section in the Dress Scene in Act 2. In stark contrast, Bolton offered a clean and soothing Masque, delivered with sincere humility. The drama of Act 3, with precise and sharp orchestral explosions right before Elizabeth's monologue, contributed masterfully to the final climax.

In the same vein, McVicar's new production exposes the crooked architecture that sustains the royal glory. The stage is dominated by a giant armillary sphere, beautifully built by Robert Jones. The symbolism is as powerful as it is evident, and McVicar uses it to unfold the storyline: the Queen ends Act 1 at the centre of the sphere, only to hand it to Essex’s hubris in Act 2, and leaves it orphan at the end of the opera. Its omnipresence risks being monotonous but Adam Silverman’s masterful lighting provided incredible contrast, with rich textures to the public scenes. These elements allowed McVicar to build a narrative continuum, blurring the artificial scene division with swift scene changes. His Gloriana is mainly realistic but corrupted with the uneasy touches of farce that take over as the story advances, such as the sombre dances and the devil jester in Act 2. All the characters are perfectly defined, thanks heavily to Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s glorious costumes, but it is Elizabeth that stands as an unforgettable creation, portrayed as an otherworldly creature, nor human nor god, powerful but frail, regal albeit mercurial.

Such an extreme, sometimes irreverent, characterisation was only possible thanks to the exceptional gifts of Anna Caterina Antonacci. She owned the stage at every appearance and led the audience through a fascinating exploration of the character: commanding and scornful in the duel scene, cheerful but cynical with Essex, august and frankly pleased during the Masque and fatally self-destructive in the dance scene, which led to the deep and naked self-conciousness of the last monologue. Her English pronunciation was extraordinary for a non-native speaker (although maybe not perfect enough for the Queen of England) and she delivered the text with clear diction and magnetic phrasing. The voice has grown a little bitter with the years, with a ferrous colour that perfectly suits Elizabeth's character. Sometimes a bit strained and with difficulties in the lowest pitch, her solid technique and healthy emission stood at the basis of a triumphal debut.

Leonardo Capalbo was the perfect choice for the ambitious and hot-headed Essex. Charming and frank, he assailed the royal quarters with his mellow lyric tenor. He was perfect in duos and ensembles, with solid tone and flaming phrasing. His second lute song, a treacherous gift due to its long phrases and low pitch, was well sung but lacked lyricism and expansion. Leigh Melrose was technically flawless but his lyric voice and correct phrasing almost contradicted the wicked Cecil as devised by McVicar. Duncan Rock, with his powerful and rugged baritone and his hostile virility on stage, gave Mountjoy true dramatic relevance. Sophie Bevan’s ringing soprano portrayed a powerful Penelope, in contrast with Paula Murrihy’s soft and innocent Frances. Sam Furness was lovely as the Spirit of the Masque, with handsome top notes. It was a perfect night for the chorus as well, with good style and a rich colour palette that contrasted all the scenes.

May this Gloriana contribute to reversing the work's doomed performance history and to secure it in the standard operatic repertoire, where it should be already by its own merits.