Britten: Gloriana

COMPOSERS: Britten
LABELS: Arthaus
ALBUM TITLE: Britten
WORKS: Gloriana
PERFORMER: Sarah Walker, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Elizabeth Vaughan, Alan Opie; Chorus and Orchestra of the English National Opera/Mark Elder
CATALOGUE NO: 102 097 (NTSC system; PCM Stereo; 16: 9 picture)
Gloriana is one of Britten’s most striking operas, but has never had the popularity of most of the others. It got off to a terrible start, being seen virtually as an insult to Elizabeth II, showing Elizabeth I in old age, infatuated with a much younger man, then having him executed for treason. The opera departs from Britten’s usual subject of innocence and corruption, being a moving study of the conflict, for a queen, of public duty and private passion. This performance at ENO in 1984 is magnificent, with Sarah Walker giving a truly great account of the long title role, seemingly tireless of voice, and acting with great dignity and force, leaving no aspect of the role unexplored.

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She is surrounded by many of the most notable British singers of the time, with Anthony Rolfe Johnson a brilliantly impetuous and dangerous Earl of Essex, Richard Van Allan a creepy Walter Raleigh, and Alan Opie a sinister Cecil. Mark Elder leads an inspired account, and the masque when the Queen visits Norwich, and the other ceremonial episodes, are imaginatively handled. The production is straightforward, with gorgeous costumes and evocative sets. My only complaint is that the colours are oddly bleached, making all the characters look as if their faces have been covered in chalk, and allowing for no deep tones either in costumes or settings. That, however, is something you soon get used to. I would add, furthermore, that it is useful to have subtitles, fine though the enunciation of most of the singers here may be. Michael Tanner