Wednesday 19 June 2013


After sixty years the Royal Opera is about to have another crack at "Gloriana", the Benjamin Britten piece written to celebrate the Coronation of 1953.  Then it went down with a large loud clunk and dismayed the audience rather than rousing them to the glories of Empire, victory in World War 2 and the conventional school history that the reign of the Tudor Queen Elizabeth was a long feast of wonders and delight.

Having seen the Opera North performance of twenty years ago and picked up a screening of a continental production, we are aware that it is a heavy duty mental anguish evening with a grim ending and did not book.  Also it is a piece of its time.  Britten tried in the few months he was given to make the best of a bad job. 

But given his musical form and the realities of 1952 to 1953 and many periods of the reign of the Tudor Queen if he was being truthful to his art then he was never going to come up with either a fun, glory story, or a blatantly propaganda piece.

Probably those who commissioned it were influenced by the varied and colourful items of film music he had written to order and the wild success of "Peter Grimes", which we have seen a few times in different productions. 

This also is serious watching and listening but you are there for the drama and the music as much as anything.  It is also about ordinary people in an ordinary town that Britten knew well and could relate to and solidly based on a well known poem.

One problem is that Britten often assumed that people knew more than they did and whilst this was less of a problem with Grimes when it came to Gloriana those in the audience did not pick up on many of the references and allusions. There is a lot more going on in Britten's works than many think.

One interesting feature is the second Act dealing with the Progress to Norwich when the Queen has made her way to what was a major City of the period rich on the Wool Trade and others.  Then in the 16th Century the Queen openly celebrated her Boleyn family and her wider English ancestry.  We might remember that in 1953 the Queen Mother was still looked down on by some as second tier Anglo-Scots aristocracy.

When the Tudor Queen Elizabeth attended a service in Norwich Cathedral she was given a throne across from the tomb of her forebear Anne of Hoo who married Thomas Boleyn.  Above the tomb was the heraldry of the Hoo family, until 1455 when the male line failed one of the great magnate families of the Middle Ages.

The Progress to Norwich would have taken her through the lands of the Howard family, that of the mother of Anne Boleyn and amongst the plotters against her rule.  Given the history of her reign it was a very firm and particular statement as to her right to rule against the very real claims the Howard family might have had.

In 1953 we assume that Queen Elizabeth was accepted as the rightful Queen, but there was still an element, albeit a very small but well placed minority who might have wanted the abdicated Duke of Windsor to return, at first as Regent. 

This would have been on the grounds that the young Princess Elizabeth would not be able to handle all the difficulties and responsibilities.  The very subtle inference to this would not have gone down well with those who knew that plotting was going on.

Now we may be able to accept that the reign of the Tudor Queen Elizabeth had many ups and downs, with periods of disease and famine and other calamities.  Also, our present Queen has done as much as can reasonably be expected and has demonstrated her grasp and abilities from the earliest days.  So we can take the Opera for what it is and of its time.

But it is still a serious piece which illustrates a grim reality.  And there is more than enough of that about at the moment.

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