Wednesday, March 7, 2012


National Theater
March 4

 Another strong showing by soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin.

After Benjamin Brittenʼs Gloriana premiered at Covent Garden in June 1953, one royal member of the audience wrote, “It was quite long, the intervals seemed endless, stick-up collars grew limp, and well before the end a restlessness set in. ʻBorianaʼ was on everyoneʼs lips.” Thatʼs not a bad capsule summary of the new production that premiered at the National Theater over the weekend.

Written for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, Gloriana tells the story of the ill-fated relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. What starts as a warm, intimate friendship gets caught up in political intrigue, with dire consequences for the Earl. The cost for the Queen is also high, revealed in an epilogue that strips away her masks of duty and obligation, and finally even her royal raiment.

But Gloriana is not a romance. It is an historical epic spanning roughly 15 years that focuses primarily on the trials, anguish and glory of being Queen. Much time and a great deal of regal, near-religious music are devoted to the pomp and ceremony Her Royal Highness engenders, even while visiting the provinces. Which makes it ideal, adoring entertainment for a new queenʼs coronation. But at this remove, unless you are a dedicated Anglophile or devotee of British history, Gloriana comes off as a tepid costume drama, like watching an episode of the BBCʼs “Masterpiece Theater” with a very good soundtrack.

That said, the music alone is worth the price of admission. Brittenʼs orchestration is brilliant, with fluttering woodwinds, ominous brass and sharp percussion supplying the drama and tension thatʼs absent onstage. Individual instruments or sections of the orchestra are used to create mood, atmosphere and emotion, often in clever, unexpected turns or phrases. And the fluency the composer shows across genres is remarkable, ranging from charming Renaissance dances to sacred choral music to great, glowing Wagnerian fanfares.

Directed by Jiří Heřman – his swan song at the National Theater – Gloriana makes full use of his favorite effects: actors moving in slow motion, objects dropping from and ascending to the ceiling, and a stage filled with cryptic peripheral characters, in this case brightly plumed dancers who add some color and flash to an otherwise dry story. The material is perfect for Heřman, who takes a stately, dignified approach to everything he touches. But in this production, it borders on ludicrous at times. The giant crown that descends to engulf the Queen when she is acting in an official capacity surely sets a record for floating metaphors. And when the Queen descends in a dazzling hoop skirt to take the orb and scepter, she looks like nothing so much as the Infant of Prague.

The productionʼs formal atmosphere is reinforced by an austere set, which at times shows little more than two characters running around a nearly empty stage. Rows of doors in wooden frames along both wings, mirrored by frames dropping in and out of the background, and portions of the stage raising and lowering to create pits and platforms, cast everything in sharp, severe rectangles and squares. Most of the color and imagination are to be found in Alexandra Gruskováʼs lush period costumes.

The only standout singer at the Sunday performance was German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin, who commanded the stage in the National Theaterʼs 2008 production of Janáčekʼs The Makropulos Case. Barkmin showed similar authority as Queen Elizabeth, ranging from the stentorian tones of an iron-willed ruler to the soft anguish of a conflicted woman. Kateřina Kněžíková (as Penelope, the Earl of Essexʼs sister) and Martin Bárta (as the Queenʼs secretary, Sir Robert Cecil) made the most of their small roles. Conductor Zbyněk Müller showed a fine appreciation for the nuances of the score, rendering its subtle colors and occasional dissonances with intelligence and clarity. And the chorus was, as always, excellent.

To be fair, Heřman and company did the best they could with challenging material and limited resources. Whatʼs puzzling is why the National Theater would add such an overtly nationalistic and rarely performed opera to its repertoire. The slavish devotion to British history in the program, which takes up nearly as many pages as the discussion of the opera itself, suggests a serious case of Anglofever. A few nights of empty seats, already in evidence at the second premiere, should cure that.

Gloriana plays again on March 11, and on April 9 and 23. For more on the production:

Photo courtesy of The National Theater

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