Britten - Gloriana

Teatro Real, Madrid, Saturday April 14 2018.

Conductor: Ivor Bolton. Production: David McVicar. Sets: Robert Jones. Costumes: Brigitte Reiffenstuel. Lighting: Adam Silverman. Choreographer: Colm Seery. Queen Elizabeth I: Anna Caterina Antonacci. Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex: Leonardo Capalbo. Frances, Countess of Essex: Paula Murrihy. Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy: Duncan Rock. Penelope, Lady Rich: Sophie Bevan. Sir Robert Cecil: Leigh Melrose. Sir Walter Raleigh: David Soar. Henry Cuffe: Benedict Nelson. A Lady-in-Waiting: Elena Copons. A Blind Ballad-Singer: James Creswell. The Recorder of Norwich: Scott Wilde. A Housewife: Itxaro Mentxaka. The Spirit of the Masque: Sam Furness. The Master of Ceremonies: Gerardo López. The City Crier: Àlex Sanmartí. Principal Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Real. Pequeños Cantores de la Comunidad de Madrid.

In various ways, following the success of Bomarzo last year, flying to Madrid for a weekend for Gloriana was a bit of a gamble. In the opera world, two hits in a row is a lot to ask for. And someone whose opinions I value highly, especially as they tend to confirm mine, agreed (a) that the idea of Anna Caterina Antonacci as Britten's Queen (her first role in an English opera, I think) was, to say the least, intriguing and (b) while David McVicar can be excellent, he can also be plain conventional. So he, too (the friend, not David McVicar), thought it was a gamble. In the event, we hit the jackpot.

McVicar did this absurdly neglected work proud with what is probably one of his most successful productions ever - more so, to me, even than Agrippina, which is still probably the best Händel production I’ve ever seen, live or on video. He used a single set. Three concentric, filigree golden arches* were set on a circular map of the British Isles (so I read: where I was sitting, I couldn’t see and assumed it was a map of the heavens) with the points of the compass. The arches, along with metallic globes of different sizes, suggested an astronomical instrument: an orrery or an armillary sphere - which is why I mistakenly thought of the heavens rather than England. At the rear, huge, blue and gold, late Tudor doors. Around the curving sides, tribunes (for the chorus, as needed) behind a wooden pale and midnight-blue walls with gold stars (bringing the Star Chamber to mind during the Council’s deliberations). The floor could turn and tilt, causing the arches to form an open sphere, and a central “plug” rose to provide Elizabeth with a plinth, for cheers and acclaim, or, at wearier moments, a seat - e.g. for signing death warrants. The staging was often darkish, but with excellent, atmospheric lighting.

The period costumes were mostly sober, in shades of grey heightened with occasional plum and purple, little ruffs, and scatterings of glittering crystal among the black. The guards wore black leather, steel breastplates and red sashes. Essex had a gold brocade jerkin over high black boots. Elizabeth’s costumes were suitably magnificent and monstrous, inspired by her most fantastical, allegorical portraits. Frances’s rival finery, purloined by the Queen to shame her publicly, was white.

The story was told as written, with a few directorial touches: a red imp, on all fours, first appeared during the carousing but eventually, ominously handed Essex his sword as as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland; at the end, the fading Queen sang “Mortua, mortua…” into a mirror held by two ladies-in-waiting as the “ghost” of Elizabeth the Princess circled round. The ballets were curiously neat and tidy, very effective. The acting throughout was finely directed, including even the sword-fights. Cecil, in deepest black robes with a long staff, limped gamely. Young Essex buckled his swash with dash.

As an unusually gripping tragic actress and an unusually subtle singer, Anna Caterina Antonacci has “form” - and a devoted, if discreet, following. As Elizabeth I, she surpassed herself in her personification of the ageing queen, in gait and posture, gestures and facial expressions, and myriad vocal inflections… In terms of volume, she was at her limit in a house the size of the Real. But the point here was not to blast and bludgeon her way through the part, but, through vocal subtlety, as usual, to deliver a convincing portrait of a complex, changing character. This was, physically and vocally, an operatic performance of a kind we rarely get to see. It was a privilege to witness.

She so dominated the cast, was so spellbinding (I found my eyes glued to her in sheer fascination much of the time, leaning forward, my chin cupped in my hands), that it’s hard, afterwards, to form a clear opinion of her partners on stage. Through no fault of their own, however much they threw themselves into their parts, vocally and dramatically, they paled somewhat unfairly in comparison with Antonacci’s monstre sacré. Still, partly because I was just thrilled at last to hear the score live, in the capable hands of Ivor Bolton, I had a normal operatic year’s ration of goose flesh in a single evening, going from highlight to highlight, from the opening “Festival of Britain” fanfares, through the marvellous, funereal descent into the second lute song, to its tragic return with the signing of the warrant and the gradual tailing off, to the spoken texts, into silence.

Of course, some of the English was “exotic”, especially from the chorus and in the spoken passages, but it would make no sense to insist on operas in whatever language only being performed by natives and if that goes for French, Italian, German or Czech it must also go for English. And the orchestra seemed to have a chaotic moment or two at the fretful start of act three. But these are minor points. I had a great evening: we hit the jackpot, as that friend said, in a way that made up, as these occasional great evenings do, for all the more usual frustrations of the opera-goer’s experience. I will be keeping an eye open for this production, online and in Antwerp and London - but if without Anna Caterina Antonacci, she will be a hard act to follow.

*I couldn't help thinking of an old Gary Larson cartoon of a bull waking from a McDonald's nightmare: "The golden arches got me..."

Talking of which, marvellous to have such a good restaurant (not a McDonald's) just behind the opera house.


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