Composers Datebook®

with host John Zech

Friday, June 8

A "glorious" Britten opera?

Synopsis

At London’s Covent Garden Opera on today’s date in 1953, the lavish costumes on stage were rivaled by the equally lavish attire of the theatre’s specially-invited audience, which consisted of medal and jewel-bedecked diplomats and her Royal Highness, the newly-crowned Queen of England. The occasion was the premiere of a new opera by Benjamin Britten, staged as part of the festivities surrounding the recent coronation of Elizabeth II.

The subject of Britten’s new opera was Elizabeth I, Queen of England during the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the rise of William Shakespeare. During her lifetime, 16th century Tudor propagandists have started what we now would call a “personality cult” around “Good Queen Bess,” the virgin queen, or “Gloriana,” as she was dubbed by poets and musicians of the day.

Britten’s opera, entitled “Gloriana,” was expected to follow the party line, but instead presented a gritty tragedy: the elderly Elizabeth I torn between illicit love for a man who betrayed the State and her duty to execute him. The depiction of royal hanky-panky resulted in the comedy team of Flanders and Swann renaming Britten’s opera “Orgy and Bess,” and one review questioned whether this was really “Music Fit for a Queen.”

One Conservative MP wrote that Britten’s message seemed to be: “Ugliness is truth, and truth is ugliness.” Britten, for his part, privately called the first night audience a bunch of “stuck pigs.” Even so, it was decades before Britten’s “Gloriana” would be appraised on its own merits apart from the political context of its disastrous 1953 premiere.

Music Played in Today's Program

Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976) Courtly Dances, from Gloriana English Symphony; William Boughton, cond. Nimbus 5295

Additional Information

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