Thursday, 20 June 2013

Britten Gloriana - Politics as Theatre

Before tonight's premiere of Benjamin Britten's Gloriana at the Royal Opera House, some thoughts on the opera and the politics of performance. ( My review is HERE). The odds were stacked against Gloriana even before its premiere. This was an exceptionally high profile commission, the biggest in British opera history. A new Queen was being crowned, and a new era of hope was dawning. And the commission went to Benjamin Britten then still under 40, and a relative outsider in British music circles. If even Peter Pears wasn't keen on taking second place to a soprano, what were the chances that the opera would be appreciated for what it was? Politics plagued the original production just as it plagued Elizabeth I.

The famous Opera North production, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, is intriguing because it 's not a straight film of the opera but presents it as a film about the making of performance.  It's absolutely valid as an interpretation of the opera. Politics is an extreme form of theatre, where image  means power. Elizabeth puts her personal feelings aside to protect her role as Queen.  This film is a work of art built around a work of art.

It's an important contribution to our understanding of Gloriana and the politics that went on about its reception.  I reviewed the DVD in 2007 for Opera Today. 

 "In the first scene, the Earl of Essex sings about a “chess game” in which the goal is to win the queen. This Queen has to keep ahead of the game, constantly, through stratagem and the illusion of invulnerability. Thus the stage action is woven with scenes from “behind the scenes”, creating the effect of illusion within illusion. Like the Queen herself, Barstow the actress is under pressure to perform. In the opening scene, where she looks wearily into the mirror in her dressing room, while listening to the overture. It’s very moving. Not all singers make good actresses. Barstow, though, is exceptionally good. She’s so convincing that you forget, for a moment, that this, too, is illusion and stagecraft. Her whole performance is a masterclass in opera characterization, and worth studying for its own sake. This Elizabeth is no fool, but watchful and tense, like a coiled spring. Hence the sharp delivery and attack, and the bristling, sharp edge to the voice. When the Queen steals her rival’s dress and dances in it, Barstow spits out her lines savagely, bringing out the menace that underpins the elaborate party games at Court."

"Film creates special new opportunities. For example, in the “Mortua”, when the Queen finally faces her mortality, there are long silences which would not work on stage or recording. Here though, the camera dwells on Barstow’s face which registers intense emotion. Sound, as such, is unnecessary. When she does sing, weakly, the song she and Essex had playfully sung long ago, she sing so quietly and tenderly that the impact would otherwise be lost. Similarly when she’d earlier explained her love for her nation, the camera pans the balconies in the opera house, backstage attendants and so on, as if all the world were listening to those noble, ringing words"

"Just as the film draws out the effort the Queen makes to remain in control, the film shows how much work goes on behind the scenes of a production. Recordings alone can sometimes break the link between listener and performer, so sometimes people focus on recording values rather than on artistic creation. This film is an excellent reminder that it is people who make opera and that it isn’t easy work !"

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