Pic by © Clive Barda, borrowed from programme
Because the obvious choice for a school trip is an opera musically poised between traditional and contemporary, about the problems a tired, irritable, elderly Elizabeth I has with her over-energetic, irritating young courtiers, juxtaposing subtle in-jokes about 1590s and 1950s society, no? Or is it? Let me share what I inferred about the mostly tween/teenage audience’s thoughts on the performance along with my own…
First, I should make clear I was not in teacher mode* and had no professional responsibility for any of the younglings present. The ROH released some seats under their Student Standby scheme. While the thought of Britten enhanced by additional chorus of hordes of probably chattering, crisp-munching, blackberry-messaging, gum-flicking kids did not appeal, I figured, well, £7.50 for a lower amphi seat, worth a go…
* Ok, I did curtly shush the adult couple chattering behind me.
Long-term readers may remember that appreciating Britten’s music has been something of a late, slow progress for me – although I am very definitely getting there. Gloriana was a completely new one for me; all I knew was that it was about the first Queen Elizabeth, and written to commemorate the coronation of the second Queen Elizabeth. And Tudor history is not my forte (deriving mostly from TV’s The Tudors and Blackadder). Before it began, I glanced briefly at an already-discarded programme, just to remind myself who was actually in the cast.
Wrong move. Contained unannounced SPOILERS. Massive ones. Here:
Bad ROH. Even a brief glance told me how it all ends for main character Robert of Essex (badly). I prefer not to be told the ends of stories beforehand, I preferred this when I was a schoolkid, and I bet many current schoolkids prefer it too. Obviously audiences are very able to appreciate dramatic tension and a well-turned plot even when they know the story inside out, but on the occasions when one gets a chance, not knowing what is going to happen does, you know, add extra excitement.
Oh, and it doesn’t actually even have the damn cast list in. If I was a schoolkid and heard a singer I liked the sound of (or for that matter, the look of – and yes, I can see Toby Spence appealing to a few) I might just want to know what their name was.
Anyway, the opera. Elizabeth is trying to continue successfully running her country, despite an assortment of courtiers either nagging and fighting for mummy’s attention, giving patronising advice, harbouring poorly-concealed patriarchal resentment at having a female leader, or just eyeing the throne covetously. I thought Susan Bullock made an superb queen – while this particular performance may not have been quite the best I’ve ever heard her sing, she combined all the imperious command and lonely-at-the-top sadness one could wish for. Also, sternly self-controlled frustrated lust for a handsome, hot-headed, shapely-legged young flatterer (Earl of Essex, played, sung and danced energetically by the aforementioned Mr Spence), and the odd bit of spiteful humour (which couldn’t help but make me imagine a Miranda Richardson version: “Ha! Your dress is nasty! And are you trying to look richer and prettier than Queenie? I’m going to nick it and make you go to the party in your underwear! Now, everybody laugh at her or I’ll cut your noses off.”)
Happy to report young audience did not find an innocent woman’s public humiliation very funny.
Attending court were also wife Lady Essex (a luxurious Patricia Bardon), sister Lady Rich (Kate Royal), and several gentlemen of the lower-voice varieties, all of whom I particularly enjoyed: the equally ill-governed Lord Mountjoy (Mark Stone), slimy Sir Cecil (Jeremy Carpenter) and a somewhat camp Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Bayley). I believe the moments of somewhat hammy acting were a deliberate part of Richard Jones’s production, which was a play-within-a-play concept of a 1950s amateur/school production. A shrunk stage area was surrounded by institutional painted walls, town/school hall style, with radiators, etc., visible pulleys and modern-dress stagehands for scenery-shifting, and visible ‘offstage’ musicians. There was a second level, with people up in some kind of viewing gallery, but it wasn’t possible to see what was going on up there from amphi row G. This concept was not at all objectionable, but for the most part it didn’t really add anything to my enjoyment of what was happening on the inner stage – I expect there were some clever references and in-jokes intended for those that remember the 1950s/coronation that passed me by.
In fact, it was really a play-within-play-within-play structure, as Act II Sc 1 involved the court going on a trip to Norwich, and being ‘entertained’ by a masque, involving dull songs, dancers in odd tights, some cheerful 1950s racism (blackface and ‘comic’ cannibals) *, and much displaying of vegetables – although unfortunately not humorous genitalia-shaped ones. (I lived in Norwich for a year, and can attest that this is an accurate portrayal of local culture.) The Earl of Essex was visibly unimpressed, the schoolkids and students in the amphitheatre were audibly unimpressed, and as for me, I would have benefited from an interval between Acts I and II. Still, Britten had a keen ear for Tudor music, and swung wittily between pastiche and parody in both the Masque scene and the palace party in Scene 3. While this is not a musical genre I personally get a lot from, who cares when being entertained by Toby Spence prancing around in yellow tights and puffy pants? (Top Tips for impressing at palace parties: Do not go to a black-and-white-themed event dressed as a lemon sorbet. Do not fail to learn the latest dance routines.)
* Happy to report the gasps of horror and awkward embarrassed giggles from the young audience. They definitely know this kind of depiction of ethnic minority groups is Not Ok.
During the interval, considerable time passes. Both in the story and literally, as herding teenagers is akin to herding cats. Audience behaviour, surprisingly good at the start, had deteriorated once into the second hour of the first half, and was not improved by the break – although their moods were clearly improved by the addition of refreshments. My mood was not improved by a significant increase in rustling of crisps and sweet wrappers and chattering. However, showing remarkably good taste, they all quietened down for Brindley Sherratt’s cameo as the Blind Ballad Singer. That’s authority. As bass roles go, it’s not exactly one of the greats – one intentionally disjointed and somewhat humorous Beckmesser-esque number – but nevertheless always a pleasure to hear his voice.
Anyway, Essex has buggered up the military campaign he was hustling for earlier, some politicking goes on, and he ends up with a death sentence for treason, despite (and partly because of) his friends and family’s various pleading, crawling and complaining. The Queen is left alone to lament the sacrifices of a monarch, with sections of quiet, still, and very beautiful music, which were ruined by the school in the front right part of the amphi (red jumpers), who kept clapping during it, then laughing, because either they (a) couldn’t wait for the music to finish to start applauding. Several times. (b) had all gone deaf from turning their headphones up too loud, and genuinely thought the music had stopped, or (c) were bored now and thought it was amusing to drown out the string section. (ROH, if you’re reading this: I don’t know how you pick which schools come to these things, but suggest you don’t invite that lot back. The rest were pretty reasonable.)
Although I’ve said above that the singing was generally very good indeed, in this work I found – as I often seem to do with Britten – that the instrumental parts held more interest for me than the vocal lines. I wonder if this is one of the reasons some opera fans dislike him? There’s a certain kind of fan who is ONLY interested in singing, and prefers orchestras to stick firmly in subservient accompaniment mode, and either become jealous whenever the composer’s focus is on giving beauty and complexity to the non-vocal instruments, or get bored because they don’t listen to individual instruments. (Just a hypothesis – please disagree in the comments if you wish!) Anyway, I was listening to the orchestra, and upper strings, your pianissimi were spine-tingling; trumpets, you were fiery; flutes and oboes, you know I love you, and yes, I did notice and appreciate the contrabassoon solo. All round, the orchestra (MD’d by Paul Daniel) were excellent, but I thought most effective of all during the final scenes (when not disrupted by brats), and during Mountjoy and Penelope’s tryst scene, beautifully evoking the rippling river, in contrast to the (deliberately) clumsy boat-on-a-rope on stage. Britten really does do wonderful water writing – any scenes involving seas or rivers.
One more thing about the educational aspect. This was also in the programme:
No, no, no. Read questions before the show starts, and then look out for the answers during the show? I thought the intention was to give young people the opportunity to experience opera, in the hope that they will enjoy it, and maybe become interested in the art form, perhaps even future paying audience members? How can you possibly immerse yourself in a performance and be moved by the music and drama if you’re thinking about finding out and remembering the answers to a load of annoying questions on a worksheet? I sincerely hope all the teachers chose to ignore this, or at least used the questions only as potential discussion points in a subsequent lesson, rather than a competition to find out which of their pupils found playing remember-the-objects-on-the-table, identifying vegetables from a distance, or keeping a close watch on the flowerpots, more engaging than the performance.