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Listening to Gloriana


This is a short reflection upon one of Britten's best and most misunderstood operas, about which many thousands of words have been written.

We have strong reservations about the apologias (or justifications) included with the newly released DVD of Phyllida Lloyd's TV film - q.v. Gloriana on film.

I have listened (for the first time) to the MacKerras/Barstow version, available currently as CDs 9-10 of Decca's Britten conducts Britten: Opera Vol.2. [sound clips are to be heard at the Decca site, but they are not too easy to navigate...]

Was one of the early difficulties (amongs many, well considered in both packages) that the original production encountered was because 1953 was long before surtitles became available and subsequently ubiquitous (with our urging, amongst others, against widespread resistance) even for opera in English?

Many (most?) who attended the premiere will not have had, or had time to digest, the libretto? This concentrated text is too subtle for many of its points to be grasped first time.

The musical subtleties are explained by Peter Evans witn the admirable 1992 CD, made made nearly forty years after Gloriana's premiere. The booklet has 72 pages (in English) including the libretto in bold, legible type and archive photos of the roster of great singers at the time, with many now famous names in small parts.

One concentrates on the music better without the competing primacy of eye over ear of DVD.

Following with those aids the superb (and superbly engineered) recording of Gloriana deepened my appreciation, especially as listening to it was fortuitously paralleled with enjoying James Shapiro's marvellous book 1599, which sets out (more clearly and readably than any I had come across before) the political intricacies which underlay William Plomer's great libretto. Gloriana takes the world ot the popular, entertaining Donizetti Tudor operas into quite another dimension!

It is wonderful that Josephine Barstow's famous assumption of the role of Elizabeth I has been caught visually too nearly a decade on, and both versions deserve a long shelf life. My recommendation is that the two are complementary and owners of one should not hesitate to acquire the other, but that there is still a place for a DVD of a great future performance in the opera house. These can work well (pace Messrs Lloyd, Randle and Daniel) but they do require an active input from viewers which is different from the fast-food expectations of today's impatient TV viewers. Originally released on the ARGO label, the MacKerras CDs are now available again as part of Decca's Britten Edition.

© Peter Grahame Woolf