Monday sees the latest live cinema broadcast of a production from the Royal Opera House. The opera is Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana which has just opened in a new staging by director Richard Jones. (Reviews include Andrew Clements 3*s for the Guardian, Rupert Christiansen is similarly ambivalent for the Telegraph, while Michael Church is more positive for the Independent.) I’m very much looking forward to watching this in the Stratford-upon-Avon Picturehouse, and all the more so because it’s an opera with which I have a good deal of history. Back in 1999, with my colleague Shaun Deeney, I produced for Illuminations and the BBC Phyllida Lloyd’s film of her staging for Opera North. (The image above is of our star, Dame Josephine Barstow, during the shoot.) The result is available for purchase as an Opus Arte DVD and it remains one of a handful of films to which I am deeply proud to have contributed. It also won an International Emmy. So what follows are reflections on and recollections of making ‘our’ Gloriana.
For all of its many glories, Britten’s Gloriana has had, at best, a chequered history. It was commissioned by Covent Garden to celebrate the Coronation in 1953, but its dark tale of an ageing Queen Elizabeth I and her complex relationship with a youthful but disloyal Essex was not exactly what the assembled grandees were expecting at its premiere.
There is a note here by Jane Erb about the problematic opening, and a good blog post on the same subject from Musical Toronto here.
As a result of the 1953 reception, the opera was long regarded as a rare ‘failure’ from Britten’s pen and it enjoyed few further productions until Phyllida Lloyd and Josephine Barstow worked together on a staging for Opera North in 1993, forty years after the premiere. This was a critical triumph and is still remembered as one of the very finest productions by the Leeds-based company; Rupert Christiansen writes in his Telegraph review of the new ROH staging:
Phyllida Lloyd’s 1993 Opera North production of Britten’s Gloriana seemed definitive. Forty years after its Coronation première, this portrait of the last years of Elizabeth I remained out of focus, until Lloyd scrubbed the historical flummery clean, delineated the drama incisively and framed a crowning performance by Josephine Barstow as the Virgin Queen.
Phyllida and her star revived the production in 1997, by which time the director had begun to think how she might translate it to the screen. She wasn’t interested in a standard multi-camera ‘capture’ version recorded in the theatre. Rather, she wanted to shoot only parts of the full opera (excluding, for example, the dance spectacle known the ‘Norwich’ scene) and she was interested in drawing out contemporary parallels in a creative approach that would be far more than a visual ‘recording’.
By this point, Illuminations had produced Deborah Warner’s BBC television version of her National Theatre production of Richard II. This suggested that we might be able to help Gloriana to the screen and Phyllida invited me to see one of the final performances in Manchester on the production’s 1997 tour. On the morning after I wrote to her:
It’s a truly glorious production – passionate, moving, spectacular, dark, harsh even and yet obviously capable of connecting very directly with an audience. I can really see its enormous potential as a film, and especially in the form you envisage it.
We then spent the next two years securing a £450K budget from the BBC, working first with Avril MacRory and then with Peter Maniura, in time for us to be able to film alongside the next revival, again with Josephine Barstow at its heart, in 1999.
By this point, we were describing the screen version – which we called Gloriana: A Film – in this way:
Gloriana: A Film incorporates the key scenes of Britten’s opera, most of which are centred on the passionate relationship between the ageing Elizabeth and the dashing Essex [who was to be played by the charismatic Tom Randle], within the backstage context of performance. The film, all of which is accompanied by Britten’s music, seamlessly mixes material filmed with a single camera onstage at the Leeds Playhouse, behind-the-scenes staged material and sequences shot on a studio stage. The result is not a conventional recording of a performance, but neither is it in any way a documentary.
Phyllida had also prepared a director’s note about her vision for the film:
I have conceived a film that through a combination of on and off stage “scenes” – the latter drawn from real events but “staged” – mirrors the Queen’s journey from exuberant power and energy at the centre of the Elizabethan world, to isolation and despair at the end of her reign, with Josephine Barstow’s experience of the huge demands of the role – from inclusion and anticipation at the start of the performance, to a gradual sense of isolation, alienation, physical exhaustion and a blurring of performance and reality.
The film explores the opera’s themes of backstage and onstage, of public ritual and private pleasure and responsibility, of the relationship between costume and performance, mask and face. It shows the opera company as a vast pyramid of people – musicians, chorus, stage crew and at the top, most supported but most alone, the “star” performer – object of the attentions of a cavalcade of dressers, wig staff, stage management and repetiteurs, guided by the counsel of her own Raleigh and Cecil – Paul Daniel the conductor and myself the director.
This is pretty much exactly what Phyllida shot during July 1999 in Leeds.On the final Saturday of the short run, we secured permission not only to film scenes of the performance from the auditorium but also – remarkably – by two camera operators on stage within the action. Phyllida went out before curtain up to explain this to the paying audience and we anticipated that we might receive complaints. In fact, audience members told us afterwards how interesting it was to watch the filming.
We shot only certain scenes during the performance, although our director of photography Toby Miller was working with five Aaton Super 16mm film cameras for that one day (I never expect to have that kit list again!). One of these, which was switched on by a remote control, was hung vertically above the action in the flies. I think we see only two brief overhead shots from this in the finished film – but, in my humble opinion, they look sensational.
The other unique shot that we achieved on that performance day was the image filmed from behind Josephine Barstow as Elizabeth as she addresses her subjects – who of course were the audience members in the Grand Theatre in Leeds. For this, we subtly brought up the house lights so that we could make out the seated people beyond her – again, the shot lasts for only a moment but is, I think, spectacular.
In the following days we continued filming, first on stage and back-stage in the theatre, but without an audience, and then in a studio at the nearby Yorkshire Television complex. Designer Tom Pye complemented Anthony Ward’s stage designs with some dazzling private spaces for the intimate scenes that Phyllida re-worked specifically for the camera.
The rushes were shaped with masterly care by editor Trevor Waite, who worked with us again last year to cut Greg Doran’s Royal Shakespeare Company film of Julius Caesar. As there so often is there were endless problems of synching sound and picture during the post-production process, but we eventually pulled it together and premiered it for cast, crew and friends back in the Grand Theatre in Leeds.
I know of no other opera film that embeds the stage drama in the backstage life of the cast and creatives in any comparable way. For me at least, this throws up all sorts of suggestive parallels between an opera ‘diva’ coming to the end of her time as a singer and an ageing queen aware of her declining powers. When Josephine Barstow sits alone at her mirror in the closing stages as the final scene is heard in the distance, I think the effect is extraordinarily moving.
The BBC screened Gloriana: A Film just once but it has continued to have a life on DVD, and you can get a sense of the film from this trailer. There is also talk of a big-screen outing this autumn during the Britten100 celebrations – watch this space for news of that.
One footnote. Perhaps I am mis-remembering but I think Phyllida mentioned while we were at YTV that she had been approached about directing for the stage a new musical featuring the songs of the pop group ABBA. Did I think, she asked, that it sounded interesting? I fear I may have been a little sniffy – after all, we were making a film of a Benjamin Britten opera – but what did I ever know? Mamma Mia!, as directed by Phyllida for both stage and screen, continues to be a spectacular theatrical success around the world and the movie is, I believe, still the second highest-grossing British feature film ever. And perhaps I should make clear that Illuminations was not the production company that made the feature film…