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DVD Review

Benjamin Britten

Gloriana, Op. 53

  • Dame Josephine Barstow – Queen Elizabeth I
  • Tom Randle – Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex
  • Emer McGilloway – Frances, Countess of Essex
  • David Ellis – Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy
  • Susannah Glanville – Penelope, Sister of Devereux
  • Eric Roberts – Sir Robert Cecil
  • Clive Bayley – Sir Walter Raleigh
  • Richard Whitehouse – Henry Cuffe
Chorus of Opera North
English Northern Philharmonia/Paul Daniel
Production Director – Phyllida Lloyd
Opus Arte OA0955D DVD 138min LPCM Stereo DTS Anamorphic Widescreen
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This is an unusual and controversial production – unusual because it presents eminently worthwhile and rarely-encountered music in an engrossing performance; controversial because Britten's opera is excised of about forty-five minutes worth of music and action. This is a film production of the opera that is described on the back cover of the DVD's box as being "… based on the Opera North revival". That description is quaint, but is accurate for two reasons: the first pertains to the issue of cuts (about four scenes or partial-scenes, including the Act II scene with Essex and his co-conspirators), and the second to the occasional backstage goings-on we are shown at the very beginning and between scenes.

Why were the cuts made, such deep cuts? Stage director (really, film director here) Phyllida Lloyd was commissioned by the BBC to make a film of her Opera North production of Gloriana, but to limit it to about 100 minutes, thus reducing the opera by approximately a third. What is regrettable is that Lloyd just didn't film the whole opera and make the necessary cuts for the BBC TV production (first broadcast on April 24, 2000), thereby retaining the whole for later presentation on DVD. Indeed, it is regrettable, because this is an excellent production even in its cut version, and the chief reason for its stunning success is the magnificent performance of Dame Josephine Barstow, who dominates the opera. It's not that the quality of her voice at this stage of her career is exceptional, though it is attractive in its mature, slightly withered and at times thicker tone. But her dramatic skills are brilliant – she simply becomes Queen Elizabeth so convincingly as to leave the viewer awe struck. I can think of no other performance by another singer portraying an historical character that is this successful dramatically. In short, this is a performance of a lifetime.

The other cast members are also good, with Tom Randle turning in fine work as Essex. Paul Daniel and the orchestra and chorus perform with spirit and commitment. The sound reproduction is fine and camera work good. This is Britten's third and final grand opera, and is now becoming recognized as one of his stronger, more masterly efforts after a long period of neglect. This is the only DVD of Gloriana, though there is a highly-praised CD set of the complete opera, led by Sir Charles Mackerras. Britten mavens will want both recordings, of course, but those who purchase only this Opus Arte version of the work will be treated to a fine production and utterly stunning performance by Dame Josephine Barstow. Needless to say, recommended.

Copyright © 2006, Robert Cummings