Only a few days ago I returned from a vacation to London where I saw several performances at different venues, including two performances at the Royal Opera House. Located in Covent Garden, the Royal Opera House was such an amazing musical theater and place to be, that my family and I had to go back a second time! We saw Britten’s Gloriana and decided to return on our last night of the trip to see Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. It was a fantastic experience to be seated in and attend performances at the Royal Opera House, a place where I had always wanted to go.
The first performance that my family attended at the Royal Opera House was Gloriana on July 6th. The production was by Richard Jones, and it starred soprano Susan Bullock as Queen Elizabeth and tenor Toby Spence as the Earl of Essex. The opera was written by Benjamin Britten and premiered at the Royal Opera House in 1953 to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The Royal Opera House brought it back this year to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the coronation!
The singing was phenomenal. Susan Bullock played a serious and focused Queen Elizabeth, giving a masterclass in acting. Toby Spence’s light tenor voice was refreshing to hear as the Earl of Essex. Patricia Bardon as the Countess of Essex gave an amazing performance, simply extending her talent across the pond after stunning everyone performing the role of Cornelia in Giulio Cesare. Out of all the great singing that I heard that night, Kate Royal as Lady Rich was my favorite. Her voice had a particular blossom at the top that was positively gorgeous to listen to. I particularly liked her high C that she held when she was told that Essex was sentenced to death. It rang brightly through the hall even with the dark situation.
The production was without a doubt entertaining, colorful, and attractive to the human eye. It was a little too busy, however, I preferred it to the drab and plainly colored production on the DVD from the English National Opera in 1984. Richard Jones’ production took place in a school house, as if it were a play within a play, like Ariadne. Before every scene a whole line of school boys dressed in uniforms would come out and hold letters, spelling the name of the place where the following scene would occur. The production also produced drastic lighting changes and very bright colors which were appealing to the human eye. There should have been a warning label pasted on the production for seizures, like they do for video games. For an opera that is not terribly exciting, Richard Jones’ production made up for it through bright lighting, coloring, and costumes.
Photo: Scene from Richard Jones’ Gloriana. Queen Elizabeth (Susan Bullock) in center, Earl of Essex (Toby Spence) lower left, Royal Opera House chorus
The opera itself left a lot to be desired. There were no big arias for any of the singers, and the choral parts were not terribly strong. The iconic musical aspect of the opera was the neo-Renaissance music that Britten incorporated into his normal style. Medieval and Renaissance fanfares were used in the Queen’s presence, in the dance of Time and Concord presented before the Queen, and on lute in the town scene in Act III. This neo-Renaissance music cannot be found in Peter Grimes or Billy Budd. Overall, I would rather pay a ticket to hear the powerful, stronger, and deeper music and story of Peter Grimes or Billy Budd, rather than Gloriana. However, it was special to hear the neo-Renaissance music incorporated into the opera, and it was a special to hear a Britten opera that is rarely performed.
It was an amazing experience attending a performance at the Royal Opera House. It was also special seeing this opera, in London, celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen may not have liked the opera, but it was written for her, and she is still alive today! It was a cultural experience, and one I will never forget.
Photo: The Dance of Time and Concord with Queen Elizabeth in the back