Opera Profile: Benjamin Britten’s ‘Gloriana’

By David Salazar
(Credit: Javier del Real / Teatro Real de Madrid)

Benjamin Britten’s “Gloriana” is one of his unique works, created to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

The opera had its world premiere on June 8, 1953 with Joan Cross in the role of Queen Elizabeth and Peter Pears as Earl of Essex. Gerain Evans was Lord Mountjoy. It is not one of Britten’s most regularly performed works, but has seen some increasing popularity in recent years.

Short Synopsis

Lord Mountjoy and the Earl of Essex get into a fight until Queen Elizabeth stops them and makes peace. Elizabeth is warned by Cecil about an incoming Armada from Spain. She is also warned that she should be careful with Essex, who serenades the Queen. He asks the Queen to counter the rebellion in Ireland.

Essex’s sister Lady Penelope is having an illicit affair with Mountjoy. Meanwhile Essex tells his wife that he is disappointed with the Queen’s unwillingness to help him with his plans for Ireland.

At a ball, Lady Essex wears an extravagant outfit, which later goes missing. The Queen returns to the ball wearing that very outfit. The Queen mocks Lady Essex. Her husband, joined by Lady Rich and Mountjoy comfort her. The Queen returns, in her own clothes, and appoints Essex to be Lord Deputy of Ireland. Celebration ensues.

In the third Act, the Queen’s maids gossip about Essex being a failure in Ireland. He insists on seeing the Queen. She grows impatient with his complains about enemies at court. Cecil comes in later to complain about the Irish rebellion and Essex’s ineptitude. She agrees to put Essex under house arrest.

Essex is sent to the Tower of London. The Queen struggles with her decision, eventually signing his death warrant. She ends the opera musing on her relationship with Essex and her own mortality.

Watch and Listen

Check out the world premiere recording of the work.


Opera Wiki