Tuesday, March 6, 2012: She Rises to Conquer


Gun-Brit Barkmin as Elizabeth makes Mountjoy (Jiří Hájek) and Essex (Norman Reinhardt) make nice.

She Rises to Conquer

Gloriana, the 3+ hour opera about Queen Elizabeth I, premiered this past weekend at The National Theatre.

This is not a light opera. Chances are you won’t leave the theatre whistling the themes from the major arias.

But you might find yourself mulling over the story, characters, sets, and most of all the incredibly bold, dramatic singing, still days later.

Benjamin Britten wrote the work, with libretto by William Plomer, as part of a celebration of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. It premiered on June 8, 1953, and its main instigator, Lord Harewood (1923-2011) – and you can probably assume, most everyone else – was expecting a glorious tribute to the arts and their glorious tribute to the new queen.

Glorious the opera is; however, the opening-night audience 60 years ago was stuffed with formally attired royalty, dignitaries, and diplomats. Apparently, the climactic scene revealing Elizabeth without wig was considered in poor taste back then, and at the conclusion of the lengthy opera, the formal applause was muted. The National Theatre program notes in English describe it as “a fiasco in gloves.”


Gun-Brit Barkmin and Norman Reinhardt in the powerful 'wig' scene

However, the opera in English is not difficult to understand, and the current production is made more accessible with clear, perfect-English surtitles (also in Czech). The paper program available at the performance is replete with historical background, biographies of the characters, explanations, and of course the description of the plot. Look for it.

But most of all, the production is a feast for your eyes and ears. Gloriana gently melds the accoutrements of 16th-century Elizabethan England (courtly dances, frequent brass fanfares, poetry, lute serenades) with the supporting framework for a 21st-century audience (clear explanations of political intrigue, portrayal of frail human emotions, the agony of unattainable love).

Especially interesting to watch is how the resplendent period costumes (Elizabeth wears the largest dress in the Czech Republic, and while suspended in mid-air) actually complement the sparse, 1960s style minimalist sets; and the precisely perfect character-dancing by Zdeněk Horváth (Morisca) is especially fine. — oo

– Mary Matz

Performances of Gloriana at The National Theatre will be repeated this Sun, Mar 11, and on Apr 9 and 23; May 25; and June 25.

Photo Credits: The National Theatre

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