The Earl of Harewood may have been exaggerating when he described the premiere of "Gloriana" as "one of the great disasters of operatic history."
Still, the Benjamin Britten opera, commissioned to help mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, was hardly a rousing success back in 1953.
Instead of the joyous celebration many expected, Britten and librettist William Plomer produced a somber work about the first Queen Elizabeth and her relationship with the Earl of Essex. Though the opera has festive elements, it ends on a downbeat note, with the monarch portrayed as an aging, disillusioned woman contemplating death.
The first night audience at Covent Garden — which included many members of the royal family — greeted it with bewilderment, some wags dubbed it "Boriana," and the piece soon disappeared from the Royal Opera's repertory.
This month, "Gloriana" is back in a new production by Richard Jones that the company's director, Kasper Holten, notes commemorates a "triple anniversary": 60 years since the coronation and the opera's premiere and 100 years since the composer's birth.
"There was feeling that it deserved another chance, to be looked at again," said Holten, who holds the same job Lord Harewood did in 1953. "To see whether the piece isn't really better than its reputation."
That it is. "Gloriana" contains some of Britten's finest music, though it possibly falls short of being a masterpiece to rank with his "Peter Grimes" or "Billy Budd."
"There are fantastic moments," Holten said in an interview. "The courtly dances, the lute song. I think the problem is that there are other parts that dramatically fail to pick up the same pace. That makes for an uneven evening."
What may have seemed an inappropriately dark portrayal of monarchy 60 years ago also feels different with the passage of time — a perspective heightened by Jones's production. He frames the work as a pageant being staged for the young queen by a local community group of amateurs. This mixture of Tudor pomp with nostalgia for a Britain that was still recovering from World War II makes for a poignant combination.
"On opening night I had a strong feeling that from the first moment, people got it," Holten said. "This piece is a part of their history and it says something about them."
Critical reaction has been mixed. Many applauded Jones's staging while finding fault with the piece itself. Writing in the Financial Times, Richard Fairman said it was "brave of the Royal Opera to bring the work back to the theatre where it had its troubled birth," but he added that "drama and music are stretched painfully thin. Perhaps that first-night audience was not so wrong-headed after all."
More positive was Michael Church in The Independent, who noted that in 1953 "people just weren't ready for a work which chimes so neatly with our post-modern consciousness. . Covent Garden," he said, "has now shown that 'Gloriana' is, if not a great work, certainly one of the most intriguing in the canon."
Part of what's intriguing is the way Britten and Plomer depict the title character. Basing his libretto on Lytton Strachey's psychological history, "Elizabeth and Essex," Plomer presents a queen who, as Holten says, "is quite a flawed character, struggling with the dilemma between personal and public roles."
The idea of the queen as outsider in her own court, beloved by her people but lonely nonetheless, struck a chord with Britten, who was drawn to portrayals of outcasts in many of his other works as well.
In the opera's final scene, after Elizabeth has condemned Essex to death for treason, she is left alone on stage. Britten daringly subverts expectations here: Instead of giving her a final aria with a soaring vocal line, he has her abandon singing altogether for stretches of spoken declamation.
"It's almost as if the musical language falls apart at the end, as if she loses her language," Holten said. "There's no more singing in her, she's been worn out. I think that's a beautiful effect."
"Gloriana," starring soprano Susan Bullock in the title role and tenor Toby Spence as Essex, runs through July 6.