Britten himself was torn


The premiere of Gloriana has gone down in operatic history as a famous disaster, and the critical reception was not much better. Only in the twilight of the second Elizabeth’s own reign, sixty years on, will this difficult masterpiece be returning to its birthplace, with a new production at Covent Garden in 2013. Heather Wiebe’s subtle account of Gloriana in her fascinating study, Britten’s Unquiet Pasts: Sound and memory in postwar reconstruction, underlines the difficulty of the task which Britten undertook, and his anomalous position after the war, somehow straddling the old, pacifist Left of the 1930s, where he had started his career, and the revived upper-class society with which he now broke bread. One of Britten’s closest friends, Marion Stein, the daughter of his publisher Erwin Stein (an old associate of Schoenberg’s in pre-Anschluss Vienna), had married the Earl of Harewood, and it was in discussions with Harewood – a cousin of the Queen, but also a vigorous and innovative cultural impresario – that the notion of a “national opera” to match Italy’s Aida, Czechoslovakia’s Bartered Bride or France’s Manon was conceived. This was, Kildea suggests, “a slightly anachronistic idea for mid-twentieth-century Britain, a country without any of the nineteenth-century opera traditions and historical reformations that gave rise to the genre on the Continent”.

more from Ian Bostridge at the TLS here.