The brash and youthful Earl of Essex prepares to play the lute at the Queen's request but completely misjudges her mood and sings "Quick music is best." Watching a stage production, we would be hard-pressed not to look at the performer, Essex. However, Phyllida Lloyd, the director of this remarkable film of Plomer and Britten's Gloriana, elects to keep Essex out of focus, in the background, incidental. Our concentration is fixed wholly on the Queen, who agitatedly reads through a report on the gathering Spanish armada and furrows her brow at her favorite's fundamental ignorance of the burden of rulership.
In just this manner, in scene after carefully crafted scene, Lloyd has refashioned Gloriana--which in Plomer and Britten's hands had turned on the Queen's struggle with Essex--into the story of Elizabeth I's inner life. What emerges is a reflection on the loneliness necessitated by wielding power, on the conflicting demands of the heart and the head, and on the shattering recognition of the approach of death.
It is less than the original. As another reviewer has noted, a significant amount of the opera has been excised: the opening joust, the Queen's Progress of Act II with the beautiful "Choral Dances" (though there is much precedent for cutting these, despite their extra-operatic popularity), the second scene of Act II where Essex and friends conspire against Elizabeth, and the second scene of Act III in which Essex's followers lead a failed revolt through the streets of London. Do these cuts take away from the opera? Of course they do, and moreover they completely change our view of Elizabeth, of Essex, and crucially of the "English people" represented by the chorus. Whereas in the opera, Essex's perspective is the first we see, in the film it is Elizabeth's. Lloyd will leave no question about the subject and no room for Essex to steal the spotlight. Whereas in the opera, Essex's antagonistic presence is made known from the opening bars of the joust, in the film almost all evidence of his mounting inner rebellion are erased. Lloyd gives him no inner life beyond that required for him to serve as a facet of the Queen's world. Whereas in the opera, the Queen's choice between a public or private life is manifested in her choice between the people or Essex, in the film the chorus serves as a musical backdrop. Lloyd never grants it the camera time to hold our interest or to encourage our self-identification. All that to say these are the things the film is not, and taken together they are more than ample reason to explore the full opera, available in the fine 1993 recording on Argo with Charles Mackerras conducting (with the same superior Elizabeth played by Josephine Barstow, though the rest of the cast differs).
It is also more than the original. What Phyllida Lloyd has captured with this film challenges us so boldly while never losing sight of the humanity of its central character that it thoroughly commands enraptured attention from first to last shot. In adapting Gloriana for film, the director Lloyd has herself become Elizabeth: her perspective governs the viewer, and despite the often painful sacrifices she has made, in the end she wins our sympathy and respect.
Of course, none of this could have been done were it not for Josephine Barstow as Elizabeth. She fills every inch of this titan's role with a nobility lacking arrogance, a tragedy lacking bathos. Surely this is one of the most finely acted performances of opera on film, easily on par with the Placido Domingo of Zeffirelli's Otello and the menacing Ruggero Raimondi of Losey's Don Giovanni. Many of the other performers are also very good, and three cheers to Tom Randle as Essex for keeping to the score for the most part ("Her conditions are as crooked as her carcass!" is a notable exception, which is converted from a set of pitches into a gesture, but at least the gesture works!). One might take exception to the occasionally uneven sound, a result of sometimes filming in the studio, where the vocalists were asked to sing to a pre-recorded orchestral track, but again the CD recording is there to satisfy the audiophile. On the other hand, a welcome bonus on the DVD can be found in the set of three "making of" pieces featuring interviews with the director, conductor Paul Daniel, Barstow and Randle.
Finally, I cannot heap enough praise on the brilliance of Barstow's performance and Lloyd's visionary production. I can only hope that a greater number of directors will aspire to this level of sincerity and creativity when making films out of operas.