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DVD Review

Benjamin Britten


  • Sarah Walker (Queen Elizabeth I)
  • Anthony Rolfe Johnson (Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex)
  • Jean Rigby (Frances, Countess of Essex)
  • Richard Van Allan (Sir Walter Raleigh)
  • Elizabeth Vaughan (Penelope, Lady Rich)
  • Alan Opie (Sir Robert Cecil)
  • Neil Howlett (Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy)
  • Malcolm Donnelly (Henry Cuffe)
  • Lynda Russell (Lady-in-Waiting)
Orchestra & Chorus of the English National Opera/Mark Elder
Arthaus Musik DVD 102097 147min LPCM Stereo Fullscreen
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Britten composed Gloriana, an opera about the latter days of Queen Elizabeth I, for the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. It was not a success, although the reasons why had little to do with Britten's music or with William Plomer's libretto. The opera did not even receive a commercial recording until 1992, when conductor Sir Charles Mackerras recorded it for Argo, with Josephine Barstow in the title role. Unfortunately, that recording has gone out of print. We do, however, have two DVDs of the opera: one from 1999, also with Barstow (Opus Arte Oa 0955 D), and the present one from 1984.

There's an important difference between the two. While this Arthaus Musik DVD presents the complete opera in an actual performance, the Opus Arte DVD is a film in which on stage and behind-the-scenes action (Barstow hurrying to her dressing room for costuming, etc.) is blended. More importantly, it cuts about one-third of the opera – the "public" scenes, mostly. That might sound awful, but truth to tell, I still loved the DVD. And yet, caveat emptor: the Opus Arte disc might better be described as a film about Gloriana, not as Gloriana itself. For better or worse, the one reviewed here is the real thing.

Walker's portrayal of Elizabeth I is not quite as subtle as Barstow's, and her vocalism not as finely pointed, yet by any reasonable standard this is remarkable performance, particularly in the last scene, which is a tour de force of both emotions and singing. Her Essex, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, easily out-sings and out-acts Tom Randle on the competing DVD. This was a role created by Peter Pears, and Johnson's voice (if not his demeanor) is eerily similar to that of the older tenor. Similarly, Alan Opie and Richard Van Allan are stronger singers than their equivalents on the Opus Arte DVD. On the other hand, I find Opus Arte's Paul Daniel to be a more gripping conductor, and his orchestra and (especially) his chorus to be more polished too. Daniel's version does boast a stronger Lady Rich, in the person of Susannah Glanville.

Even though Arthaus Musik's supporting cast tends to be stronger than Opus Arte's, it is the latter that remains most desirable for me – largely because of Josephine Barstow, but also because of Phyllida Lloyd's perceptive, imaginative direction, cuts be damned! Watching the Opus Arte DVD is like being placed in the middle of the action, and then disappearing within it. The production reviewed here was directed by Colin Graham, and while there is nothing wrong with the staging (nor with the costumes and sets), the immediacy of the direction on the Opus Arte DVD sweeps everything else away.

Sound (PCM stereo only) and image (4:3 fullscreen) are good for the time, but not up to current standards. Some of the video editing is a little bumpy, and the occasional focus is off. There is no bonus material. (The Opus Arte DVD offers almost 40 minutes of interviews and similar features.)

If you love Gloriana, you will want both of these DVDs: the Arthaus Musik for its completeness, and for the strength of its supporting cast, and the Opus Arte for Barstow, and for its drama and daring.

Copyright © 2007, Raymond Tuttle