British director Richard Jones is well known for his bold, modern and often controversial takes on operatic repertoire. So I was very curious to see what surprising ideas he would come up with in directing Britten’s rarely performed opera Gloriana, originally composed in honour of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. 60 years on, this new production opened on 24 March at the Hamburg State Opera, and will travel to the Royal Opera House in June.

Jun-Sang Han (The Spirit of the Masque), Hannah Sofo (Concord, Tänzerin der Ballettschule des Hambu
Jun-Sang Han (The Spirit of the Masque), Hannah Sofo (Concord, Tänzerin der Ballettschule des Hambu

As many readers may be aware, “Gloriana” is a term that was used to refer to Queen Elizabeth I, but this opera is far from a glorification of the monarch. Rather, in his typical way, Britten explores the Queen’s inner conflict between her public and private lives in her old age. The libretto was written by William Plomer and was based on Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex. The ageing and solitary Queen sees in the young, hot-blooded Earl of Essex a hope for both the future of her country and of herself, and despite opposition from her advisors, she grants his strong wish to suppress a rebellion in Ireland. But when he fails in his mission, she puts duty before private emotions and signs his death warrant.

The première of the work at Covent Garden in 1953 was a failure which has been partly attributed to the fact that the many of the guests at the gala opening didn’t have an ear for opera, let alone Britten’s opera. It has had successful revivals since, but seeing this work staged for the first time, I felt that there were inherent structural weaknesses in it. The opera, in three acts, is further divided into eight scenes (and all but two scenes involve the Queen on stage), but the scenes are rather disjointed and the frequent scene changes stops the narrative as well as the musical flow.

Richard Jones’ solution to this structural problem was to set the whole opera as a village pageant that was performed in honour of an imaginary visit by the young Elizabeth II in 1953. As a framework for this, he added a silent prologue and epilogue where the young Elizabeth II and her entourage arrive and leave. On the stage is erected a village hall with its own smaller stage, and we get to see all the scene changes being handled amateurishly by the village stagehands. Each scene change is signalled by the pulling of the invisible curtains and then a troop of boy scouts come out with cardboard lettering to tell us where each scene is set: “Whitehall”, “Nonsuch Palace”, etc.

Jones’ treatment of the characters in the opera was surprisingly straightforward, apart from the fact that they were played by villagers – the characters were in mock-Elizabethan costume, although some of the chorus (i.e. villagers) were in 50s dress. Throughout the opera, there were many comic and ironic references to the history of the British monarchy (some more obvious than others) which may have escaped the audience in Hamburg but will certainly entertain the London audience.

Interestingly, the cast and conductor are almost entirely different in the Hamburg and London perfromances. In Hamburg, it was conducted by their outgoing Music Director Simone Young, who paced the work intelligently and showed good understanding of Britten’s musical style in this opera in which he incorporates the language of Elizabethan music such as dances and lute songs. The orchestra played stylishly and the on-stage musicians, especially the harpist and wind ensemble, deserve special mention. The chorus, however, seemed less confident and at times the English text was hardly audible (they are probably not so used to singing in English), but they played the villagers charmingly.

The British soprano Amanda Roocroft sang the demanding role of Elizabeth I with authority. At times she lacked the power to rise above the densely orchestrated sections, but her soliloquy in Act I, Scene II was movingly sung, portraying both the Queen’s dignity and loneliness. The Earl of Essex was sung by tenor Robert Murray. Overall he sang admirably, but for me, he didn’t bring out enough of Essex’s character as an arrogant, reckless but attractive man – whether this was due to the direction or to Murray I was not sure. The two lute songs in the intimate scene with the Queen in Act I were sung with delicacy and style, but even there the frisson was missing.

In the supporting roles, the Countess of Essex, a target of the Queen’s jealousy, was touchingly sung by the young American mezzo-soprano Rebecca Jo Loeb, an ensemble member at the Hamburg State Opera. The Queen’s two advisors were both excellently portrayed: Sir Walter Raleigh by bass Clive Bayley (the only singer to reprise the role in London) and Sir Robert Cecil by the Mexican baritone Alfredo Daza.

Overall, there is a nostalgic feel to this production by Richard Jones – nostalgia to the 1950s when the British still had a strong feeling of patriotism and affection for the monarchy, as represented by the villagers’ eagerness to please the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II with this pageant. For a Richard Jones production it was surprisingly uncontroversial, but it is a fun and fitting tribute for the double anniversary of the Queen’s coronation and the première of the opera. I look forward to seeing the production again with a new cast at Covent Garden in June.