The Operas of Benjamin Britten: Expression and Evasion

By Claire Seymour | Go to book overview

8

Gloriana

The blood flew through his veins in vigorous vitality; he ran and tilted with the sprightliest; and then suddenly health would ebb away from him, and the pale boy would lie for hours in his chamber, obscurely melancholy, with a Virgil in his hand.

Lytton Strachey, Elizabeth and Essex 1

I love, and yet am forced to seem to hate; I am, and am not; freeze, and yet I burn; Since from my other self I turn.

William Plomer, Gloriana, 'The Queen's Dilemma', Act 3

Britten's first four operas had been characterised by the persistent presence of an unarticulated drama which ran parallel to the ostensible 'plot' and which at various times complemented or contradicted the discernible stage action. The tension generated by this 'shadow' drama pervaded the verbal and musical discourses and complicated the relationship between the text and score. It might be simplistically defined as a conflict between external and internal forces or between social duty and personal inclination, and it found powerful outward expression in the schizophrenic dislocation in the psyches of Britten's protagonists, of the kind described in the above quotations.

In Britten's fifth opera, Gloriana, this conflict between public and private worlds informed every dimension of the opera, from the nature of the commission and conception, to the performance and critical reception of the work at a gala premiere at Covent Garden on 8 June 1953. It was an essential feature of the source text and was complicated by Strachey's personal identification (discussed below) with the inner lives and tragic experience of his characters, an identification reminiscent of Britten's own sense of personal implication his previous operas. The antagonistic forces in Gloriana influenced not only the theme and characterisation but were also an important factor in the structural organisation

____________________
1
Lytton Strachey, Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History (London: Chatto and Windus, 1932), p. 4. All subsequent references are to this edition and are given in parentheses in the text. In Britten's copy of Lytton Strachey's text this passage is annotated with a single vertical pencil line. Philip Brett suggests that the absence of any other annotations might indicate that a different copy, now missing, was used by Britten and Plomer during the writing of the libretto. (See Philip Brett, 'The Creative Evolution of Gloriana', in Paul Banks (ed.), Britten's 'Gloriana': Essays and Sources (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1993), pp. 17—47).

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The Operas of Benjamin Britten: Expression and Evasion
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • The Operas of Benjamin Britten - Expression and Evasion *
  • Contents *
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Permissions *
  • Abbreviations x
  • 1 - Introduction *
  • 2 - Paul Bunyan *
  • 3 - Peter Grimes *
  • 4 - The Rape of Lucretia *
  • 5 - Albert Herring *
  • 6 - The Little Sweep *
  • 7 - Billy Budd *
  • 7 - Billy Budd *
  • 8 - Gloriana *
  • 9 - The Turn of the Screw *
  • 10 - Noye's Fludde *
  • 11 - A Midsummer Night's Dream *
  • 12 - The Church Parables *
  • 13 - Owen Wingrave *
  • 14 - Death in Venice *
  • 15 - Conclusion *
  • Bibliography *
  • Index *
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