As I was about to complete this review, Michael Greenhalgh’s write-up of the blu-ray equivalent appeared (OABD7143D - review). He gives a detailed summary of the action of the opera, which I recommend you to consult.
The story of the high expectations aroused by Benjamin Britten’s commission for an opera to celebrate the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 and its failure to convince the opera-going public is well known. Instead of the Elizabeth I of the Tilbury speech in the face of the Armada threat, Britten chose the events surrounding the Earl of Essex’s rebellion towards the end of her reign. Though the queen’s portraits presented her as growing ever younger, the reality was that her face was pock-marked by the make-up which she had plastered on, her head almost bald and her teeth blackened by the sugary foods that she liked. It’s this travesty of the portraits - minus the teeth - that Essex stumbles on at the start of Act III.
At the end of her life - actually several years after Essex’s rebellion - the queen lay on the floor and refused to go to bed. The opera spares her that indignity but leaves her alone and despondent on her throne. All in all, that’s not quite what people wanted in 1953 for the new Elizabethan Age.
Until recently only the Courtly Dances and the Suite, Op.53a, were at all well known and recorded. Even the WNO/Charles Mackerras recording (budget-price Decca 4785269 or 4756029, with Midsummer Night’s Dream) didn’t much advance the cause, so the royal Diamond Jubilee and Britten’s Centenary seemed an appropriate moment for Covent Garden to put matters right. On the evidence of these DVDs it seems to me that they were partly, but by no means wholly, successful in doing so and largely for the same reasons as my colleague gives.
When this recording was made at Covent Garden in June 2013, MusicWeb International Seen and Heard reviewer Mark Berry was there on the 20th, welcoming the performance and production in the main but far from convinced by the opera itself - review. It may well be, as Michael Greenhalgh, who also saw the opera at Covent Garden, surmises, that the rather silly stage-business is more off-putting on video, where we have close-ups of the business in the wings, than it was in the opera house, as, for example, at the start of the second DVD.
Otherwise the idea of setting the opera as a production within a production in a church hall, with Queen Elizabeth II’s flag-decked portrait - the 1590s encapsulated within the 1950s - has much more to recommend it than opening Don Giovanni in a bus-shelter or Siegfried in a kitchen-diner and nuclear dump, to give just two examples of the silly ideas that I’ve seen perpetrated.
Any performance of Gloriana stands or falls by the performance of Elizabeth herself. Having greatly enjoyed Susan Bullock in other roles, I have to admit that she doesn’t quite fit the bill here. Michael Greenhalgh attributes his disappointment to Ms Bullock’s stressing the queen at the expense of the woman. My own misgivings go a little deeper: I don’t think she was in best voice, at any rate on the night in question, by comparison with her Brünnhilde on the Mark Elder/Hallé Walküre (CDHLD7531 - review and review). As with the stage business, her vocal shortcomings may be more apparent on video than in the opera house, where she apparently came over as more authoritative in manner. On this recording there is all too little variety in her singing.
Toby Spence’s Earl of Essex is much better; his performance and Kate Royal’s Lady Rich go quite some way to making the performance more successful but it’s the orchestral contribution and Paul Daniels’ direction that are the highlights for me.
This is not the first time that Opus Arte have released the work on DVD: Michael Greenhalgh thought their earlier semi-documentary release of the Opera North production with Josephine Barstow in the title role (OA0955D) in 2006 also something of a mixed blessing - review.
Similarly, though he preferred the Arthaus DVDs of Mark Elder’s ENO performance, with Sarah Walker as the queen; that too received a mixed review.
The picture quality of the new release is good, though the blu-ray will clearly be superior in that respect. I watched some of the opera close-up on my 23-inch CD monitor as I was completing this review, and under those inauspicious circumstances - right under my nose, as it were - it inevitably looks a little grainy.
The sound is good, though the words are sometimes lost unless you have the subtitles active - paradoxically, playing the DVDs over an audio system emphasised the distance of the voices relative to the orchestra more than simply listening to the TV. Once again I imagine that the blu-ray is superior - sound benefits from the newer format even more than the picture. As the latter is on sale from amazon.co.uk for just over £1 more, UK readers with a blu-ray player may well prefer that option. The price differential from amazon.com and arkivmusic.com is greater.
The documentation seems more substantial than it is - though the booklet is thicker than that which comes with most DVDs, that’s because of its multi-lingual nature. It does, however, contain not only a useful synopsis but also a detailed and informative analysis, act by act, from Christopher Wintle.
Like Michael Greenhalgh, I regard this as a partial success rather than the failure which two other reviews that I’ve just seen suggest, but I have yet to discover the performance that convinces me that Gloriana is worthy of comparison with my favourite Britten operas, Peter Grimes and Turn of the Screw.
Previous review (Blu-ray):
Britten discography & review index: Gloriana