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Elizabeth and Essex


RODERIC DUNNETT on Phyllida Lloyd's Gloriana for BBC TV


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The costumes - chorus included - are exquisite too (cash-stripped Opera North doesn't stint a regal wardrobe); the lighting - often restrained and shadowy, is an asset; and so are the other characters : Clive Bayley's constantly intriguing Raleigh ('The jackal lurking by the wall' - a whisper of Quint's music before its time) is in magnificent snide voice; conniving with Eric Roberts' Cecil, the arch-manipulator, listening at doors and smugly presiding over trials, Sir Walter Raleigh got what he deserved in the ensuing reign.

The undertow of mystery and threatening in the strings is especially unnerving as it anticipates Barstow's pained, prayerful Act 1 outburst, whose Tallis-like simplicity and urgency is one of the highpoints of the opera. The dark mellow woodwind of the volta and galliard is as catchy as the famous Choral Dances are thrilling. There is an acknowledged involuntary hubris ('I am armed like a God') about Essex's horse-trappinged, fated departure for Ireland. The energy dispensed onstage at Essex's return is vital; the shock as he reveals the pallid Queen ('an ageing woman unadorned') is palpable - Barstow looks like Alastair Sim at the end of a particularly exhausting St Trinians term, or Robert Helpmann cast as Marie Antoinette en route to the scaffold; and the dignity and facial calm with which Elizabeth addresses his intrusion, profoundly affecting. When she takes up his song ('Ah, Robin') everything - above all the involuntary voyeuristic viewer - melts.

But Essex has broken all the rules; for every possible reason, this is a doomed passion, The post-trial scene is gripping, with some superb editing and intercutting by the BBC technical staff underlining the tension and involvement of Lloyd's production. The shadowy lighting and dark costumes of the latter stages both serve to increase the unease and reduce the more tiresome elements of open-mouthed TV opera. Elizabeth's interview with Lady Essex 'Frances, a woman speaks. Whatever I decide, your children will be safe' and the terrible, almost deranged warrant-signing scene (with the emergence in full brass of the heart-rending Elizabeth-Essex music) are just two of a clutch of scenes that make Lloyd's staging as gripping television as the shrewish interchanges between Elizabeth (Rosalind Plowright) and Mary Queen of Scots (Janet Baker) in the ENO/Mackerras recording of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda. Lady Rich (Susannah Glanville) is strong; and Emer McGilloway's Lady Essex, particularly touching. Lady Rich's insolent outburst, which seals her brother's death, 'Still great he would have been/Without the favour of a Queen' is a riveting piece of theatre.

Susannah Glanville (left) as Penelope, Lady Rich and Emer McGilloway (right) as The Countess of Essex. Photo: Stephen Vaughan

Susannah Glanville (left) as Penelope, Lady Rich
and Emer McGilloway (right) as The Countess of Essex.
Photo: Stephen Vaughan


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Copyright © 24 April 2000 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK



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