Britten’s Gloriana was composed for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, and portrays Queen Elizabeth I in her last years. To present a vulnerable ageing monarch to her young, untried namesake and successor, and with an establishment audience rather than one of operagoers and Britten admirers, notoriously compromised the work’s reception. The next sighting after that first production was ten years later, a concert performance given for Britten’s 50th birthday. A Sadler’s Wells production of 1966, revived by English National Opera in the 1970s, were key to its rehabilitation. So a concert performance and one given by ENO was a fitting way to offer the work – in only a single performance – in tribute to the late Queen Elizabeth II.

Paula Murrihy (Frances) and Christine Rice (Elizabeth I)
© Nirah Sanghani

The work was given what ENO called a “concert staging” which seems an oxymoron, but was quite precise. So no concert dress but Tudor costumes for every named character, convincingly acting out their roles directed by Ruth Knight. No sets but the chorus were given a stepped platform for public scenes, while a dark gauze curtain, displaying bold white projections at times, was lowered for intimate exchanges, and for the final scene. The choir was garbed in black, resembling an ancient Greek chorus commenting on the action, which suited the Earl of Essex’s classically tragic role, a once heroic figure brought down through pride. The presentation was successful in thus focussing on essentials, suited the work’s structure of self-contained tableaux (set pieces titled and numbered in the score), and spared us clichéd or half-timbered ideas. It could perhaps have a role beyond this unique occasion.

As Queen Elizabeth I, Gloriana herself, Christine Rice certainly portrayed both the monarch’s strength and vulnerability, as she juggled political and personal challenges. A demanding role vocally, she encompassed its histrionic range from tenderness to fiery outbursts – the shrillness one always hears is written in – and even, in the curiously shocking dress-swapping scene of Act 2, Scene 3, a discreditable sarcasm. Although some of her final melodrama used recorded speech, she was at the very end a touching and capable diseuse. This was Rice’s role debut, and quite a commitment to learn for a one-off occasion, if that is what it proves to be.

Christine Rice (Elizabeth I)
© Nirah Sanghani

Robert Murray was doomed royal favourite Robert Devereux, the “unruly and unruled” Earl of Essex. He was very persuasive deploying his sometimes strenuous tenor to suggest a man temperamentally a step away from self-destruction – vocal control in the service of uncontrolled rage. His lyrical skill was well suited to his Second Lute Song (text by the real Devereux), poignantly evoking the peace he will never know. His wife Frances was Paula Murrihy, moving in her plea for her children’s futures in the penultimate scene. In the same scene, as Essex’s sister Penelope Rich, Eleanor Dennis was powerful as her angry insistence led the Queen to sign her brother’s death warrant at once. Duncan Rock was an ingratiating firm-voiced Lord Mountjoy, and these four were excellent in their extended well-balanced ensemble singing in Act 2, Scene 2.

Sir Robert Cecil was Charles Rice, courteous of voice and manner in his relations to his boss, even when he had to warn her about Essex and face her anger. Raleigh was David Soar, vocally authoritative when arbitrating in the quarrel of the opening scene. Smaller roles were well-taken from Harewood Artists tenor Innocent Masuku (The Spirit of the Masque) and Alexandra Oomans (Lady-in-Waiting), both making much of their single important scene, to distinguished veteran Sir Willard White as both The Recorder of Norwich and the Ballad Singer. With Claire Barnett-Jones as The Housewife and Alex Otterburn as Cuffe, few productions can have had such strength in depth in the cast.

Robert Murray (Robert Devereux)
© Nirah Sanghani

The ENO Chorus, with much to do in this score, and the fine ENO Orchestra under Music Director Martyn Brabbins were effectively participants in the drama, sensitive to the various dramatic reappearances of its two superb main themes, the “Green leaves” chorus and the Second Lute Song. The courtly dances Britten turned into a suite were played with much charm, especially from the woodwinds.

Before the second part, after long and deeply felt applause for these musicians, someone shouted “Three cheers for the ENO” and the audience response was such as must have been heard by every member of Arts Council England, wherever they were. Brabbins turned round and raised his hands above his head and applauded in acknowledgement. Onstage and off, there was no escaping the consequences of ill-considered actions this evening.