Opera in three acts (duration 2 hours 30 minutes)

Libretto by William Plomer, after Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex

A quick introduction

When was it written?

September 1952 – 13 March 1953, revised May-July 1966. The first performance was on 8 June 1953 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

What’s it about?

Set towards the end of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, this grand opera revolves around the relationship between the ageing monarch and the devious Earl of Essex. He attempts to overthrow her through various ruses, but his plans fail and Elizabeth signs his death warrant.

What does it sound like?

Composed for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, this is a very grand opera with a full orchestra, large chorus, fanfares and ‘choral dances’. It is energetic and rhythmic in the more ceremonial sections, but also has poignant and exquisite arias, such as Essex’s ‘Lute Songs’, and the Queen’s final monologue.

Watch & listen

Did you know?

1. The idea for Gloriana first occurred to Britten whilst he was talking with the Earl of Harewood about nationalism in opera during a skiing holiday in Austria.

2. Britten’s notes suggest that he originally considered the idea of incorporating Mary, Queen of Scots into the plot of Gloriana, but he eventually decided not to include her in the cast.

3. Britten had a number of National Gallery postcards of famous Renaissance figures, including Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex, on his desk as he worked on the music for Gloriana to keep him in mind of the period in which the opera was set.

4. When Imogen Holst remarked on the playful rhythm of the boys’ chorus in the opera’s final act Britten acknowledged that he was able to compose such mischievous music because he was ‘still thirteen’.

5. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh attended a dinner at the home of the Earl and Countess of Harewood in May 1953 at which they were given a sneak preview of some of the music from the opera. Gloriana premiered at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 8 June 1953, six days after the coronation of the Elizabeth II, to whom it is dedicated.

The plot

Time and Place: England, around 1600

Act 1. At a royal jousting tournament, the ambitious Earl of Essex picks a fight with Lord Mountjoy and is wounded. Queen Elizabeth’s punishment is that henceforth they shall always attend court together. They become friends. Cecil warns his monarch about Essex’s unruliness, and about the likely threat of an armada from Spain. Working on her fondness for him, Essex flatters the queen and asks to be appointed her Deputy in Ireland, to quell the rebel Tyrone. Elizabeth temporises, conscious of her position as monarch and wary of his impetuousness.

Act 2. In Norwich, the Queen is welcomed by the citizens and entertained with a masque of Time and Concord. At Essex’s London house, the Earl, his sister Lady Rich and her love Mountjoy plan their advancement to power: his wife counsels caution. At a grand ball in the Palace of Whitehall, the Queen, perceiving the lavish dress of Lady Essex’s wife to be an insult, insists the ladies change after a strenuous dance; she reappears wearing the offending dress, which is much too small for her, to shame Lady Essex. Essex is furious, but mollified when Elizabeth announces the appointment he has long craved and sends him to Ireland.

Act 3. His campaign, however, is a failure and on his unexpected return he insists on admittance to the monarch while she dresses: he confronts an old woman without wig or make-up. He pleads his cause, but she is unconvinced and later Cecil warns her of his scheme to replace her. In London, Essex’s supporters fail in their attempt to win the people over to his rebellion. Essex is condemned, and when a deputation of his wife, sister and friend to plead for him goes badly awry, Elizabeth signs the warrant for his execution. In the final scene, the dying monarch recalls the tests she has withstood during her reign.

For information about performing forces and where to buy/hire a score please visit the publisher pages.