Magazine article The Spectator

Royal Occasion

Magazine article The Spectator

Royal Occasion

Article excerpt

People still write about Gloriana in a defensive tone, though surely the absurd reactions of some of its first spectators can now be forgotten. In a production as nearly faultless as Opera North's - they have been receiving so much critical flak lately that it must be nice to have a winner that can be revived regularly to the renewed or (in my case) fresh delight of all who see it - it comes across as all told the finest of Britten's operas. In all the others which one might make that claim for there seems to me to be a fatal flaw, often the result of Britten's obsessions entering in a sidelong fashion. Gloriana is blessedly devoid of his usual concerns, though Opera North's leading programme commentator, in a tryingly trendy piece, writes that `The tale of Elizabeth and Essex is the stuff of homoerotic play', giving the strange grounds that `here is a young man in a position of submission, pursued for his good looks. She is old enough to be his mother.' If that constitutes the stuff of homoerotic play we shall have to do a good deal of conceptual reorganisation. The author goes on to specify four ways in which Elizabeth `invented a kind of transcendental sexuality', but I think they are better left unpursued.

The production, unlike the notes, is direct, sensible, clear-headed and unaffected by contemporary fads. At its centre, still, is the performance of Josephine Barstow. I am clearly in a tiny minority in finding her all too much of an intense thing. I don't object to intensity, and plenty is called for in this role, but I find Barstow's is unvarying. She puts so much into everything that whether she is celebrating, cajoling or threatening, the words come out with a ferocity which I find wearying. Now that her vocal resources are undeniably shrinking, she has to resort to something like shouting to get some of her intended effects across. At the end, and once or twice before, she tries whispering, and becomes inaudible. Her presence continues to be magnetic, but then Britten has ensured that. By contrast with his Queen, the Essex of Thomas Randle, also a well-- rehearsed assumption, is wonderfully vibrant and various. In the opening scene, enraged at the account of Mountjoy's success, he is dangerous, sexy, restless, worldly and tinged with idealism. The confident building up of the characters from the very start must owe a lot to Britten's veneration for Verdi, though the Italian rarely managed so many characters with such mastery. …

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