As I write this review it is 40 years bar a few days since the ill-fated premiere of Britten's Coronation opera in 1953. In his introductory essay to this set, Donald Mitchell vividly recalls––as I do––the furore it caused. Instead of the staid pageant expected by the bejewelled and stiff audience assembled for a royal gala they were given an intimate study of the ageing Queen's torment as she copes with the conflict of private emotions in the midst of public pomp, both unerringly depicted in the score. Those of us who attended one of those early performances were aware of its worth and their calibre has been recently confirmed to me by hearing a copy of a broadcast performance in the archives of the Britten/Pears Library, a wonderful memento too of Joan Cross's art (incidentally she there sings the much more extended version of the finale later sensibly foreshortened by Britten).
Recognition of the work's importance in the Britten oeuvre only came about when it was given by Sadler's Wells Opera in 1966 in Colin Graham's sympathetic production, which survived in the repertory well into the 1980s and was video-recorded in 1984 by Virgin Classics ((VHS) VVD344). By then Sarah Walker had succeeded to the role of Elizabeth, and Rolfe Johnson was the Essex. Unforgotten in the title-role are Sylvia Fisher, in 1966, followed by Ava June, who sang the part when the company visited Vienna with the work in 1975. I caught the first Sadler's Wells performance and many of the revivals which only enhanced my appreciation of the piece. Hopes of a complete recording back in the 1970s with Dame Janet Baker were never fulfilled. Now at last it has been given the full panoply of a digital recording by Argo and, happy to report, it completes with elan a Britten double this month (see above).
Sir Charles Mackerras has long been an admirer of the piece, conducting the revival that went to Vienna. He presents it here with the utmost conviction, drawing together the motivic strands of the score into a unified, coherent whole (not an altogether easy task), appreciating the contrast of the public and private scenes, exposing the raw sinews of the writing for the two principal characters, and drawing superb playing from his own WNO Orchestra––although it must be said that the company's chorus isn't always as confident in execution as one might wish and at the start of the opera, observing the duel, they are too backwardly recorded. Above all, Mackerras is obviously convinced of the work's stature and––as a longtime interpreter of the composer's music––places it, as it were, in the context of his whole output. How delicately he etches in the exquisite detail of the riverside, Act 2 scene 2, underpinning the illicit love of Penelope Rich and Mountjoy, how unnerringly he realizes the two central encounters between the Queen and Essex, what Mitchell not here but in The Britten Companion (Faber: 1984), describes as ''a brilliant study of the ambiguities that can surround a grand passion''.
Josephine Barstow crowns her career with her Gloriana. Sounding uncannily similar to Sylvia Fisher in the part, she follows that underrated but unforgotten soprano in commanding the opera by her vocal presence, her imposing, vibrant tone, her vital treatment of the text, and her attention to detail. She conveys the Queen's dilemma in the superb solo at the end of Act 1, her petulance, in the dancing scene where she changes dresses with Lady Essex (to the latter's embarrassment), and, in the later of the two scenes with Essex, her sadness at passing time––''But the years pursue us...''. Just before that Barstow––and Britten, of course––reveal the monarch's vulnerability when Essex bursts in on her and catches her ''unadorned''. And here is an appropriate point to praise William Plomer's poetic libretto, one of the best Britten set as he implicitly acknowledges in contemporary correspondence. In the theatre, too, much of it is lost; here we can enjoy its strong and original flavour.
Philip Langridge projects all the vehement impetuosity of Essex but also, in the famous lute songs, the poetic ardour of the handsome if unruly Earl. Like his Queen, he is adept at making the most of the words, but he can't quite match the mellifluousness called for here and heard in the performances of Pears (on the Covent Garden tape) and Rolfe Johnson. As with all Langridge's many portrayals of the Pears roles, he sets his own parameters and convinces the listener of the validity of his reading.
There is much discerning interpretation elsewhere and, as ever, Britten provides brief vignettes in which character is revealed. Della Jones is, as expected, a vivid Lady Essex, Yvonne Kenny a proud Penelope Rich (though not expunging memories of Jennifer Vyvyan, the first Penelope), Jonathan Summers a forthright Mountjoy. Even better than these are the wily Cecil of Alan Opie and the subtle Raleigh of Richard Van Allan, carried over from the English National Opera video, and what a sensitive touch to have cast John Shirley-Quirk, always a Britten singer par excellence, as the Recorder of Norwich. If worn tone sometimes reminds us that some of these singers are no longer in the first flush of youth, we are consoled by their understanding of their parts. Bryn Terfel's rotund tones are rather wasted on Henry Cuffe. Another young singer, John Mark Ainsley, makes a sweet-voiced Spirit of the Masque. Willard White is cleverly cast as the Ballad-singer though Norman Bailey is superior on the Elder/Virgin video.
By and large, the recording is worthy of the performance, but I was occasionally troubled by an unnaturally over-emphatic bass, and I don't think the spoken passages near the end have quite come off, although I understand the effect intended by the varying acoustics and level. These small reservations are as nothing before the triumph of the achievement as a whole, with particular praise due to Barstow and Mackerras. Perhaps this performance will earn the soprano a well-deserved Damehood.'