Monday, September 19, 2016


The music transcends the text


I have already written a long review of the libretto. So let’s start with the libretto and the music will come afterwards.

Gloriana was composed for the coronation of Elizabeth II and it deals with Elizabeth I in her advanced age when sending the Earl of Essex to Ireland in 1599 to fight against and bring to a brutal end the rebellion led by Tyrone. He failed – or rather followed another agenda – and he comes back lo London to try and bring Elizabeth down, which fails and he ends up sentenced to death as a traitor, hence drawn, hanged, emasculated, eviscerated, quartered and beheaded, each severed part being burned in front of his eyes since he was brought down from his hanging before dying and was alive all along.

The first act shows how the younger nobles in the court are impatient and very vindictive one against the other in the pale and lackluster activities of the court like here a tournament to win a ribbon from the Queen. The second act shows a visit of the Queen to Norwich where she is received with a masque and the younger nobles who have to follow and want to have real action, in this case Ireland for the Earl of Essex, are bored and on the verge of plotting. Elizabeth I finally appoints the Earl of Essex to Ireland with the mission of bringing the rebel leader Tyrone’s head back to London. In the third act we discover he has failed and has come back to London after negotiating a truce with the rebels but now he wants to push the Queen out. She of course reacts as the Queen should and have him captured, tried and sentenced to death for treason, the harshest possible sentence he could get with no possible remission in spite of some women, Essex’s wife and sister, coming to plead for clemency. The Queen is furious and signs the court sentence immediately.

This opera sure shows the sovereign behavior and attitude of the Queen who trusts nearly no one and does not even follow her feelings or emotions, or hardly. It is always a game of power and authority, especially since she is a woman, an old woman at that, and she constantly has to make everyone feel and remember she is the one who has authority and power. But apart from that the human and humane side of this Queen disappears and in 1599 the important question of her successor is a burning question that is not dealt with apart from a vague allusion to the King of Scotland who must be James IV. Ireland is not really on the back burner but it sure is not the main question for the Queen, especially with Spain that is menacing to send a new Invincible Armada. In fact we see this Queen and her life at court or on an official visit out of London, or even in her private chamber as being rather boring and trite. Benjamin Britten probably was not best inspired in choosing this subject and the way the libretto deals with her is not exactly fascinating. So many other episodes in her life would have been so much more attractive and interesting.

The fact that this rather morbid opera was produced for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II could even be seen as bad taste. The following lines sung by the Queen at the end of the first act sound more like a testament than like the joy of a new and very young Queen coming to the throne:

“O God, my King, sole ruler of the world;
That pulled me from a prison to a palace
To be a sovereign Princess
And to rule the people of England:

Thou hast placed me high, but my flesh is frail:
Without Thee my throne is unstable,
My kingdom tottering, my life uncertain:
Oh maintain in this weak woman the heart of a man!”

She was not a man in a woman’s attire, nor a woman in a man’s position, because the “sovereign” in the English tradition was not to be necessarily a man, a king or whatever. The sovereign was supposed, and is still supposed to be beyond such gender differences. It was a difficult position to hold for a woman in her very advanced age but she did not have the heart of a man, far from it. She did not marry not because of this supposed wavering gender orientation, but because any man would never have accepted to yield power to her because she would have been the Queen and her husband would have been the consort. It was easy for Mary I since her husband was a king in Spain and in no way dependent. It was a lot more difficult for Mary II who required her husband who was not king on his own to be king along with her, an absolutely unique situation with English Kings and Queens. Queen Anne had it easy because she was a rather discreet women and her husband was like a private affair hardly a rival for power. Victoria had it rather easy too since her husband was what we would call an engineer today, even maybe an industrialist, and he died very early leaving Victoria a widow for most of her life and reign.

In this opera Britten is playing with ghosts when Elizabeth II is arriving on the throne. He would have been better inspired with Queen Anne, or even Queen Victoria in her early period when Albert was planning the industrialization of the kingdom, and these subjects would probably have been better received and understood.

And now I can move to the music.

I listened to the opera after reading the libretto and writing the review on the libretto. I was at first, with the first act, not very thrilled and yet the opera finally found some life with the second scene of the second act right through to the end. In this scene the plotting frustration of Essex is musically so marvelously set that I felt like a magical moment, an epiphany. The music, the tone, the power of the ternary accusation from Essex against the Queen, “Caprice, rebuff, delay-,” what’s more repeated twice is revealing more than anything he had said before. At this moment the music reveals him, the plotter, the impatient ambitious cousin of this Queen he seems to despise, and he will betray.

The third scene with the dancing party is perfect as for the music because of the musical episodes that are just mentioned in the libretto. Just as the Masque in Norwich was dull and without any dynamism in the first scene of this act, the six or seven musical episodes are superb in variety and vigor. The pavane is majestuous without being pompous. The galiard is energetic and lively. The lavolta is trepidating. The Morris dance is frenetic. The quartet is not a musical episode per se but only a sung section with four singers, Essex, Lady Essex, Mountjoy and Lady Rich. It is crucial because the Queen has humiliated Lady Essex by appearing in some kind of trendy short dress Lady Essex had been wearing. The Queen has just played the clown in that short dress on the Morris dance. Three characters of the quartet are trying to reassure the fourth one, Lady Essex, that she had lost nothing, and at the same time it is Lady Essex who reminds her husband that the Queen may “have her conditions.” Then a very majestic march brings the Queen back, this time in her formal dress. She announces to Essex she sends him to Ireland. Perfect counterpoint to his plotting or something close to that.  And that leads to the final musical piece, a cornato. Essex Leads the queen into it.

At this moment the music has given to the story a power that per se it did not really have. We can then move to the dramatic third act and the music, all along, turns scenes that could be melodramatic into something both poignant and empathic with the Queen assuming all her power and responsibility, and Essex appears as pitiful and even pathetic, particularly when he forces his way into the private room where the Queen is dressing. He sounds like a child and the music makes him sound like a child in some kind of a temper tantrum. The second scene is quite surprising. It is the story, news in fact served live, of what is happening and how the rebellion is defeated even before ever starting. The great idea is to have a street ballad singer tell what is happening. It sounds so real in a way as if it were a direct report on some kind of market place radio in the 16th century. The music is also maybe slightly anachronistic, slightly only with some notes or small pieces of tunes that sound like a western ballad.

The end of the rebellion is trite in the scenario but the music is able to play on gross words and to make them hyper funny though of an absolute bad taste. It is the chamber-pot small vignette with the words onto which the music makes us focus our attention:

HOUSEWIFE: I’ll damp your courage! Take that, you wastrel!
[the chamber pot, the people in the street running in all directions, the onlookers laughing.]
BALLAD-SINGER: . . . But Goodwife Joan will jeer at him Till pride itself is slain: It is her lot To keel the pot And mock the hero home again.
HOUSEWIFE & OLD MEN: it is her/my lot to keel the pot And mock the hero home again.

Without the music it is not much, but with the music it is really effective.

After that hilarious little scene we go back to a serious tone and dense decisions. The Queen has to sign the warrant sending Essex onto his drawn way to the scaffold. It is all the more dramatic, even maybe tragic, since she sends her own cousin to be hanged and she takes a swift decision because Lady Essex and Lady Rich try to cool her. Lady Essex invokes her or their children, hers and her husband’s. That could be seen as a provocation due to the “virginal” status of the Queen. But the straw that breaks the camel’s back is the intervention of Lady Rich, what’s more with Mountjoy present, her lover; though she is married of course. She was in other words absolutely out of place, even if she was Essex’s sister.

And that dynamic scene in which after her signing the warrant Elizabeth will practically only speak turns sad because then she is an old lady contemplating her death coming slowly, maybe too slowly. The tone is once again carried by the music because the words are rather trite like her very last words: “I see no weighty reason that I should be fond to live or fear to die.”

These last words are definitely not the type of ethics we can expect on a coronation day of a young Queen, but the music has created a perspective that makes the trite words nearly empathetic and like a friendly confidence.

A last remark is about the stranger in this opera. Of course Ireland is behind with Tyrone and the rebellion. Of course Spain is behind too, and even France, though in Spain Philipp II has just died and France is just some kind of inside joke in England where the Kings or Queens will pretend to be the King or Queen of France up to the end of the Stuarts. But the real stranger is in fact Essex who is not able to understand that his attitude makes him unacceptable, in fact disposable. He is the cousin of the Queen and he treats her as a pure enemy, as someone he does not even respect enough not to force his way into her room when she is dressing. Despicable.


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