Britten’s Gloriana

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What’s the present opinion of this opera? I know there was a lot of controversy about it at the time it was first put on (1953).

I think it had revivals in the ’60s (Sadler’s Wells), and more recently, and I think the general opinion now is that it was originally misunderstood and underrated by the gala first night audience who weren’t really people to appreciate a new opera.

The irony is that it was originally planned to have a ballet on the gala night and it was Britten’s supporters who campaigned to have Gloriana then instead of later.

I still find Gloriana uneven, indeed I think it’s the first work in what I regard as an uneven 20 years in Britten’s output until Death in Venice. But it has its moments: I think the end is tremendously moving, and the two lute songs in act one introduced me to the unique world of the Elizabethan lute song, so I’m very grateful for that.

I had heard so much of the negative response to Gloriana in 1953, so when I finally saw it for myself I was surprised by how good it was. It was either ahead of its time, or simply unsuitable in the eyes of most for what was supposed to be a celebratory occasion. I wonder what those who chose Britten as the composer for this occasion thought he would come up with? He wasn’t likely to write Merrie England. It was never going to be simple patriotism and a rosy view of a golden age.

I suspect one reason why it is still comparatively neglected is that it is, I imagine, expensive to stage. It has to have a grand production with grand Elizabethan costumes (modernising it would be ludicrous, though that doesn’t necessarily stop directors), it has to have dancers. The title role is wonderful for a good dramatic singer. I think it deserves more productions.

I think that during Benjamin Britten’s lifetime it was rare to find a moderate, impartial view of his music. On the one hand there was the Mitchell-Keller brigade who seemed to think every note he wrote was a masterpiece, on the other, equally wrong, were those who wrote him off as all clever tricks. I always felt he was a substantial original composer who had written some great stuff, but lacked the depth and vision of Tippett, for instance.

Up to Billy Budd I think his music is immaculate, brilliant, and I can hear all those works repeatedly with endless delight, my favourites being the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, Peter Grimes, the Spring Symphony, Abraham and Isaac and Billy Budd itself.

From Gloriana to Owen Wingrave I feel there are lapses where he’s scratching for ideas to get the piece finished. The Sanctus in the War Requiem for instance, and its increasing dependence on Verdi as it progresses. The last two movements of the Cello Symphony are a disappointment after the first two, and I think one church parable was enough. And for me he’s out of his depth in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as much as Strauss would have been writing an opera on Maurice.

I think he went through a difficult time realising he wasn’t a wunderkind any more while younger composers were turning to serialism. Then suddenly he seems to say ‘to hell with this, I’m just going to be myself’, and writes Death in Venice and from then on he was back on the rails (although sadly not for long).

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