Gloriana was Benjamin Britten's eighth opera, and his first real failure. As life-long pacifists and conscientious objectors, Britten had moved to American in 1937 to escape the rapidly approaching war. He returned to Britain in 1943, enjoying the triumph of his opera Peter Grimes, which today remains a staple of most major opera companies.
In 1952 Britten decided to write a "national" opera, based on Lytton Strachey's book Elizabeth and Essex. The opera idea received royal approval and the assurance that if Covent Garden could not pay the commission costs, the royal Treasury would. Gloriana, composed in celebration of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and first presented at Covent Garden during Coronation Week, 1953, is based on the relationship between Elizabeth I and Lord Essex, and was said to have annoyed the young queen as she watched her famous predecessor represented in amorous dalliances. Perhaps the audience wanted another "Merrie England" work of the sort to which they had become accustomed, perhaps the pageantry which slowed the action was a problem. Whatever the reasons, the general reception to Gloriana was no more positive than the Queen's. The audience expressed scorn, boredom, and disdain, the critical press was generally displeased with the work, and Britten grew despondent and depressed over its failure. During his lifetime Gloriana remained Britten's least successful opera, although a 1966 revival by Sadler's Wells, in commemoration of Britten's 50th birthday, garnered more interest and indicated that the earlier performance might have been seriously underestimated. Gloriana has received more frequent performances and recordings in recent years.
Copyright © 1996 by Jane Erb, All Rights Reserved.