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Britten Gloriana on film

Josephine Barstow, Tom Randle, Emer McGilloway, David Ellis, Susannah Glanville, Eric Roberts, Clive Bayley
Chorus of Opera North / English Northern Philharmonia / Paul Daniel
Film Director Phyllida Lloyd
with Phyllida Lloyd, Josephine Barstow, Tom Randle and Paul Daniel

Opus Arte OA 0955 D [April 2000, based on 1999 revival: c.140 Mins]

Filmed for a TV audience which is characterised unflatteringly in the absorbing interviews, the aim of this drastically shortened version of the most controversial of Britten's early operas was to perpetuate the "Gloriana experience" of three revivals of Phyllida Lloyd's production with Josephine Barstow.

It was initiated to preserve on record Barstow's latest assumption of the role at a critical period in our diva's career, which was counterpointed with that of the ageing Queen as portrayed by William Plomer in his libretto. That concentrates upon a particularly difficult period in the reign of the young Queen Elizabeth's most illustrious predecessor. For celebrating the latter's coronation Britten's Gloriana had been widely condemned as inappropriate...

The Opera North production became something of a love story in the growing friendships between Lloyd and Barstow, and Barstow and Randle, the ill-fated Earl of Essex, whose venture in Ireland led to humiliation and execution as a traitor; their scenes together are riveting.

This centrality is preserved, and one follows Barstow offstage to experience something of what carrying such a role entails; that aspect aiming to generate a feeling for opera in a general TV audience which will not have attended the live performances.

Paul Daniel speaks freely and frankly of his misgivings about Britten's originally ill-fated opera and Opera North's project to revive it. And Lloyd and Randle share his disdain for straight filming of performances in opera houses, fearing that home viewers quickly lose attention and that the essence of the always unique theatre occasion is inevitably destroyed. Parallels between Elizabeth I and our now ageing Qu. Elizabeth II's Annus Horribilus around the time of this filming are brought into the discussion.

Our view is that home viewers of arts programmes should not be lumped together under Opera North's stereotype. Even though we are conveniently located in London, and see live opera constantly, we get equal (though different) pleasure and satisfaction from better opera DVDs. Those in which camera work in the opera house is kept simple depend more on the viewer/listener's active input; that is a debate which will go on for ever.

An ideal combination is of course to see productions both ways (q.v. Barber of Seville at Lucerne). The limitation of some videoed operas lies in the level of picture resolution, which is improving with up to date equipment. Alan Blyth in his review for Gramophone makes the point that in the theatre much of 'William Plomer's poetic libretto, one of the best Britten set' is lost; Opus Arte's DVD has the luxury of optional subtitles in a range of languages - another long disputed factor in the continuing debate and a battle now won....

The visual quality and sound is good, with acceptable balance, and there is a useful essay by Nicholas Payne on the history of the opera and Britten's relations with the Establishment to put the enterprise in perspective, with an additional note by Phyllida Lloyd explaining her determination "to create for viewers an experience they could never have in an opera house".

We will be returning to consider the 1994 CD recording of Gloriana*, with Welsh National Opera and a strong cast headed by Dame Josephine Barstow under Sir Charles MacKerras.


* see: Listening to Gloriana

© Peter Grahame Woolf