Opera Scotland


Tours by decade

Tours by location

Benjamin Britten (born Lowestoft, 22 November 1913; died Aldeburgh, 4 December 1976)

William Plomer.

Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History (1928) by Lytton Strachey (1880-1932).

First performance: London (Covent Garden), 8 June 1953.
First performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (King’s Theatre), 3 April 1967.
Scottish Opera première: N/A.

Gloriana was commissioned for the Coronation, and gained an undeserved reputation for difficulty because of a rather fraught first night in front of a formal Gala audience who would perhaps have placed attending the first night of a new, serious opera low in their entertainment priorities in London at Coronation time. The later performances were successful, however, and Sadler’s Wells put on a new production in 1966 which showed it to be an excellent work. This staging was toured to Edinburgh and Glasgow the following year, and subsequently to Brussels, Lisbon, Munich and Vienna. Gloriana has not been seen in the central belt since, but a couple of years after the Sadler’s Wells tour it was mounted at Haddo House (north of Aberdeen), with Judith Pierce in the title role. Twenty years later, in 1989, Haddo mounted a second production, with Sarah Walker as Elizabeth, using costumes borrowed from Sadler’s Wells.

Main Characters
Queen Elizabeth (soprano)
Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (tenor)
Frances, Countess of Essex (mezzo-soprano)
Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy (baritone)
Penelope, Lady Rich, sister to Essex (soprano)
Sir Robert Cecil, Secretary of the Council (baritone)
Sir Walter Raleigh, Captain of the Guard (bass)

Plot Summary
The action takes place in the last years of Elizabeth’s reign – Essex went to Ireland in March 1599 and was executed in February 1601. Elizabeth died in 1603. Cecil advises the Queen not to become too close to Essex, but the earl wins her over through singing two lute songs. He asks to be given command of the Irish campaign. While Elizabeth is on a royal progress through Norwich, Essex persuades his immediate family members to support him in his ambition. His wife is hesitant, but his sister Penelope, and her new lover Mountjoy, once an enemy of Essex, are both keen. On her return, the Queen holds a ball where the extravagance of Lady Essex’s costume arouses her jealousy. The tension is briefly resolved when Elizabeth announces Essex’s appointment as Lord Deputy in Ireland. Essex’s Irish campaign proves disastrous. He flagrantly disobeys orders by returning to England without permission. He makes matters worse by bursting into Elizabeth’s private chambers when she is being dressed – she is not yet made up, and without her wig looks shockingly old and vulnerable. She recognises with regret that she has failed in her attempt to reform him. Essex’s fortunes decline further, and he mounts an unsuccessful rebellion. The Council recognises that he must be executed, but are worried that the Queen will delay. However when Penelope and Lady Essex come to beg for his life, Penelope’s arrogant attitude has the opposite effect, and the earl’s fate is sealed. The final scene shows reminiscences passing through her mind as Elizabeth’s life ebbs away.


ARTHAUS (1 DVD) Sung in English Recorded 1984

Conductor: Mark Elder. Director: Colin Graham. Designer: Alix Stone.
English National Opera Orchestra
Sarah Walker (Elizabeth), Anthony Rolfe Johnson (Essex), Elizabeth Vaughan (Penelope).

This is a fitting souvenir of the staging which rescued Gloriana from undeserved oblivion. Sadler’s Wells first mounted the production by Colin Graham in 1966 with Sylvia Fisher in the title role. It was revived regularly both before and after the transfer to the Coliseum, and they also took it abroad to show the strength in depth of the company at the time. Even allowing for the fact that this revival was planned in order to film it, the quality of the cast is remarkable, not just the Essex and Penelope, but with Jean Rigby as Lady Essex, Richard Van Allan as Raleigh, and three excellent baritones, Alan Opie, Neil Howlett and Malcolm Donnelly as Cecil, Mountjoy and Cuffe. Even Norman Bailey turns up as the Blind Ballad Singer. The part of the Morris Dancer goes to Robert Huguenin, who a decade earlier created the role of Tadzio in Death in Venice. However the opera belongs to Gloriana, and Sarah Walker gives a majestic performance. Anyone lucky enough to have seen her performance at Haddo in 1989 will need no prompting to hunt down a copy of this. The staging does now look a bit old-fashioned, but that really is not a problem when it is performed with such conviction.

ARGO (2 CDs) Sung in English Recorded 1992

Conductor: Charles Mackerras
Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
Josephine Barstow (Elizabeth), Philip Langridge (Essex), Yvonne Kenny (Penelope).

This recording is the first studio version to have been preserved, and it is excellent in most respects. Charles Mackerras conducted many performances of the old Sadler’s Wells staging, but Welsh National had never presented it at all, and Josephine Barstow only went on to sing the title role with Opera North after the recording was made. Perhaps her diction is not always quite as clear as it might have been. Philip Langridge and Yvonne Kenny give vivid support, and the other roles are taken by such luminaries as Della Jones (Lady Essex), Jonathan Summers (Mountjoy) and Bryn Terfel (Cuffe). Alan Opie and Richard Van Allan repeat their roles from the ENO staging, and Willard White also puts in an appearance as the Ballad Singer. The recording quality is superb and brings out how beautifully orchestrated Gloriana is.

The Cast

Blind Ballad Singer
Charles Blount
 Lord Mountjoy
City Crier
Country Girl 1
Country Girl 2
Country Girl 3
 Queen of England
 Countess of Essex
Henry Cuffe
 a satellite of Essex
Lady in waiting
Master of Ceremonies
Morris Dancer
 Lady Rich, sister to Essex
Recorder of Norwich
Robert Devereux
 Earl of Essex
Rustic 1
Rustic 2
Rustic 3
Sir Robert Cecil
 Secretary of the Council
Sir Walter Raleigh
 Captain of the Guard
Spirit of the Masque

© Copyright Opera Scotland 2024

Site by SiteBuddha