I have recently acquired a quite astonishing DVD realization of Benjamin Britten’s opera Gloriana starring Dame Josephine Barstow as Queen Elizabeth I and the American tenor Tom Randle as the Earl of Essex. The film is directed by Phyllida Lloyd, British stage director who directed the stage performances at Opera North upon which this DVD production is based. Gloriana, written by Britten for the coronation festivities of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 is considered one of the great operatic disasters of all time; however the past fifty years and several productions have proven that the opera has real staying power and may be one of Britten’s best works.
The DVD is astonishing from two standpoints:
(1) The performance is only 100 minutes and leaves out a considerable chunk of the opera–in fact, it leaves out everything that doesn’t have immediately to do with the relationship between the queen and Essex. (How did they convince the Britten Estate to do that?) The result is a much more compelling drama, without the elements that were required for the opera house, especially the second-act “masque” which was pretty music and dance to please the opening night audience.
(2) This performance blends the reality of behind-the-scenes in the opera house with the performance, and ultimately blurs the line between Josephine Barstow as performer and aging woman and the character of Queen Elizabeth. There are scenes from the opera house production that blend into Barstow as queen taking refuge in her dressing room, away from the trials of 16th century England. It is one of the most brilliant realizations of opera to film that I have seen, as it draws upon the best elements of both.
Unlike many opera singers, both Josephine Barstow and Tom Randle can act with enough subtlety to sustain close-ups: she, regal yet privately vulnerable; he, sexy, impulsive, high-strung. Paul Daniel conducts, and the musical values are as impressive as the visuals.