The 1953 Coronation Week galas included Covent Garden's world premiere of Benjamin Britten's Gloriana . But instead of a feel-good Olde England spectacle glorifying the first Queen Elizabeth they got an opera about a royal... more » court riven by intrigues, a treasonous lover, and an aging, lonely monarch who must rule her passions in order to rule her kingdom. The opera's full of brilliant, inventive music and moving emotions. It requires a Queen equal to a role that demands great acting and great singing and Josephine Barstow is just such a Queen. She embodies the part with such overwhelming intensity it's hard to imagine anyone else in it. Her voice may have lost some of its lustre, but the toll time has taken only makes her performance more riveting. This DVD is a must-have for Barstow alone. The others in the cast are quite good; tenor Tom Randle is a fiery Essex and Clive Bayley's oily Sir Walter Raleigh is excellent, among many others deserving of mention. Conductor Paul Daniel leads an exciting performance, despite a few questionable tempos. But director Phyllida Lloyd's transformation of a staged opera to film will be controversial, as will the brutal cuts she makes to more single-mindedly focus on the Queen and her interior conflicts. Thus, what we see is not what Britten intended, but instead a valid interpretation of the opera by a skilled director. Still, the music is compromised by her approach, which blends onstage performance film and studio scenes in which singers match their parts to piped-in orchestral accompaniments with backstage, handheld camera shots showing performers changing costume and bantering among themselves as Britten's music plays. It's exciting video, but more valuable as a supplement to the complete staged opera than as your sole Gloriana. --Dan Davis« less
"The brash and youthful Earl of Essex prepares to play the lute at the Queen's request but completely misjudges her mood and sings "Quick music is best." Watching a stage production, we would be hard-pressed not to look at the performer, Essex. However, Phyllida Lloyd, the director of this remarkable film of Plomer and Britten's Gloriana, elects to keep Essex out of focus, in the background, incidental. Our concentration is fixed wholly on the Queen, who agitatedly reads through a report on the gathering Spanish armada and furrows her brow at her favorite's fundamental ignorance of the burden of rulership.
In just this manner, in scene after carefully crafted scene, Lloyd has refashioned Gloriana--which in Plomer and Britten's hands had turned on the Queen's struggle with Essex--into the story of Elizabeth I's inner life. What emerges is a reflection on the loneliness necessitated by wielding power, on the conflicting demands of the heart and the head, and on the shattering recognition of the approach of death.
It is less than the original. As another reviewer has noted, a significant amount of the opera has been excised: the opening joust, the Queen's Progress of Act II with the beautiful "Choral Dances" (though there is much precedent for cutting these, despite their extra-operatic popularity), the second scene of Act II where Essex and friends conspire against Elizabeth, and the second scene of Act III in which Essex's followers lead a failed revolt through the streets of London. Do these cuts take away from the opera? Of course they do, and moreover they completely change our view of Elizabeth, of Essex, and crucially of the "English people" represented by the chorus. Whereas in the opera, Essex's perspective is the first we see, in the film it is Elizabeth's. Lloyd will leave no question about the subject and no room for Essex to steal the spotlight. Whereas in the opera, Essex's antagonistic presence is made known from the opening bars of the joust, in the film almost all evidence of his mounting inner rebellion are erased. Lloyd gives him no inner life beyond that required for him to serve as a facet of the Queen's world. Whereas in the opera, the Queen's choice between a public or private life is manifested in her choice between the people or Essex, in the film the chorus serves as a musical backdrop. Lloyd never grants it the camera time to hold our interest or to encourage our self-identification. All that to say these are the things the film is not, and taken together they are more than ample reason to explore the full opera, available in the fine 1993 recording on Argo with Charles Mackerras conducting (with the same superior Elizabeth played by Josephine Barstow, though the rest of the cast differs).
It is also more than the original. What Phyllida Lloyd has captured with this film challenges us so boldly while never losing sight of the humanity of its central character that it thoroughly commands enraptured attention from first to last shot. In adapting Gloriana for film, the director Lloyd has herself become Elizabeth: her perspective governs the viewer, and despite the often painful sacrifices she has made, in the end she wins our sympathy and respect.
Of course, none of this could have been done were it not for Josephine Barstow as Elizabeth. She fills every inch of this titan's role with a nobility lacking arrogance, a tragedy lacking bathos. Surely this is one of the most finely acted performances of opera on film, easily on par with the Placido Domingo of Zeffirelli's Otello and the menacing Ruggero Raimondi of Losey's Don Giovanni. Many of the other performers are also very good, and three cheers to Tom Randle as Essex for keeping to the score for the most part ("Her conditions are as crooked as her carcass!" is a notable exception, which is converted from a set of pitches into a gesture, but at least the gesture works!). One might take exception to the occasionally uneven sound, a result of sometimes filming in the studio, where the vocalists were asked to sing to a pre-recorded orchestral track, but again the CD recording is there to satisfy the audiophile. On the other hand, a welcome bonus on the DVD can be found in the set of three "making of" pieces featuring interviews with the director, conductor Paul Daniel, Barstow and Randle.
Finally, I cannot heap enough praise on the brilliance of Barstow's performance and Lloyd's visionary production. I can only hope that a greater number of directors will aspire to this level of sincerity and creativity when making films out of operas.
An Extraordinarily Dramatic and Effective 'Gloriana'
J Scott Morrison | Middlebury VT, USA | 09/09/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This is not, as you might expect, simply the filming of a stage performance. It is, in fact, a film in which the stage performance is the major part but not the only part of its substance. We get Phyllida Lloyd's staging of 'Gloriana' at Opera North as the heart of the film but we also get many backstage scenes interspersed as well (perhaps a throwback to Ingmar Bergman's approach in his film of 'The Magic Flute'), with a focus on Josephine Barstow, on-stage and off, in her preparation for and performance of the role of Elizabeth I in which she is so stunningly effective, both vocally and dramatically. (I might be mistaken, but I think this production was Dame Josephine's last major stage portrayal.) The staged production received well-deserved raves in its day and after the film's airing on BBC-TV it received an International Emmy as well.
Lloyd, with the cooperation of conductor Paul Daniel, did major surgery on the opera. She omitted, for instance, the scenes of the Norwich Masque and the conspiracy scene in the Essex House garden. This tightens the action and contributes to its being a dramatically powerful presentation. The cast, especially Barstow as Elizabeth and Tom Randle as Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, are perfect in their portrayals. It is easy to see how Elizabeth may have fallen for Essex (although that is only hinted at in the opera) because Randle is an immensely attractive man and a powerful actor, as well as having a Peter Pears-like tenor that he uses with skill. To be honest, this is one of the few historically-based operas I have watched with bated breath because of the power of the drama. And I was surprised at this because my opinion of the opera gained from an audio recording (also featuring Barstow and conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras) had not entirely commanded my interest. Sets and costumes are resplendent. Musical values are all one could ask for. It is the combination of visual and musical values that makes this such a wonderful piece and this DVD a wonderful experience.
Others in the cast who deserve mention include David Ellis as Lord Mountjoy, Clive Bayley as Sir Walter Raleigh and the marvelous chorus of Opera North.
A definite recommendation.
Region 2 warning is wrong
Robert Spofford | San Rafael, CA USA | 11/19/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Amazon's warning on this listing that it is Region 2 (i.e. won't play on most US players) is wrong! Like most opera DVDs, this one is Region 0, which means it plays in all regions, and NTSC - the North American video system.
This is a wonderful disc, and I hate to think Amazon is inadvertantly scaring of buuyers with this bogus warning. Opera discs need all the sales thay can get!"
SCENES FROM GLORIANA
Charles D. novak | minneapolis, minnesota USA | 09/18/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I've never been a big fan of operas turned into movies - the Gotz Friedrich film of ELECTRA being the big exception - and I'm totally against anyone who has the audacity of toying with the score of the composer. I guess the director of GLORIANA - Phyllida Lloyd - didn't trust the opera she was paid to direct and decided to put goether her own version, making huge cuts in Britten's composition. Her gimmick of showing scenes going on backstage during the performance was annoying and totally distracted from the music. But all of these concerns are mute when you see and hear the performance of Josephine Barstow as Queen Elizabeth I. I can't imagine Callas' legendary performance as TOSCA at Covent Garden being any better then what Barstow offers vocally and visually in this roll. If for no other reason, buy this DVD just to have this performance of a life time at your finger tips which I'm sure you will watch over and over again. Britten's music is immediately accessible which will only make you wish you could hear the entire score. Franco Zeffirelli made the same blunder when he turned Verdi's OTELLO into a film and decided to leave out the entire ensemble that brings down the curtain on the third act. Never mind it was one of the best pieces of music that Verdi ever wrote. Let's hope this slice and dice approach isn't contagious to other operas in the planning stages."
A Missed Opera-tunity
G P Padillo | Portland, ME United States | 01/18/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)
"The performances are nothing short of astonishing and I was moved - powerfully so. Still, in the end, I have to admit to being somewhat let down. I loved this Opera North production - the casting, the direction, everything about it. I even - to a lesser degree - enjoyed the backstage moments, costume changes, pranks, etc. But the ending, which Britten ensures to pack a huge emotional wallop (and isn't that what we most love about opera?) is diffused by having the heroine taking off her wig, makeup before her dressing table as we hear the unseen audience going wild and the stage manager calling cast names for curtain calls. It's really something of a let down.
Ultimately I fear I'll probably not return to this "film" that much as when I want to see/hear Gloriana - I want the composer's vision. It's a pity, too, as apparently the director - Phyllida Lloyd - is responsible for both the outstanding stage production (apparently one of Opera North's most successful) AND the film adaptation.
In a DVD extra, Lloyd's remarks angered me a little. She talked about how over 9 years this production had been revived three times and grew in every way - audience appeal, stage drama, etc. and how she wanted a document of it and give something to a film viewer that a live audience could never get - hence all the backstage business and camera shots from above looking down - (dazzling really). BUT - she's not a fan of live operas filmed from the stage. She states "people don't understand what a terrible shortfall of joy there is for the viewer" of televised live opera from the stage, going on to tell us that what she's done is preferable to the "flat and static experience" of watching taped live performances of opera. WHAT THE EFFFF?
Apparently Ms. Lloyd is unfamiliar with the boom of live performance opera DVDs - growing more each year. Apparently she's not seen the hundreds of performances we all here rave on about routinely. She goes on to insult practically all other directors before her (not by name of course) but rather by stating how "surprised" she is that no other directors have addressed this "static" issue. Oh really? I'd like to hear her tell that to Hans Hulscher's face, or Brian Large, Yves-André Hubert, Horant H. Hohlfeld, or any of the other directors who have made so many operas come alive on small screens in our living rooms. Really, the audacity, woman!
She then goes on to state that what she's actually doing is letting the television viewer see both the public and private life of Elizabeth and Essex, by allowing us to go backstage with the singers to the private areas that the general public will never see. Sorry, her argument is shot to hell (in my opinion) because we're NOT seeing Essex and Elizabeth but rather Tom Randle and Jo Barstow and the rest of the cast as we watch them eating candy bars and drinking tea or bottled water in the wings, dressing rooms and tunnels.
My blood really turned to the boiling point when the conductor agrees, stating this was their vision from the beginning as they thought this through "with a lot of healthy disrespect for the opera . . . because really one of the worst things you can do for any live opera is to put it on film or television. Kills it dead. Three people will watch and they'll turn it off after half an hour. It's rather like the worthiness of reading prizewinning books right to the end . . . not many people know what happens in the last third of ANY of the great books ever written." Say what?
He defends cutting the opera to a 90+ minute film because people wouldn't want to watch the whole thing and if you want to see the whole opera and hear all of the music, then you "should go see on the stage."
Believe it or not, I actually respect that they're being so adamant in their belief of the film but find it a missed opportunity and a a pity they could not believe in their production enough to make a film of the entire work, feeling the necessity to trim and pre-digest so severely so that we common lunks could "get it."
It's a fascinating piece of film, to be sure, but I really feel the producers missed an opportunity to memorialize a landmark production of one of Britten's greatest works and one of Josephine Barstow's greatest roles."