When Benjamin Britten presented a bald and crabby Elizabeth I to the next Queen Elizabeth, the public was not amused.
He composed his 1953 opera “Gloriana” -- which shows Elizabeth I as a clever, complex and tormented monarch -- to celebrate the coronation of Elizabeth II, who was at the premiere. It flopped. One critic called it “Boriana.”
Now a new Royal Opera production by Richard Jones, with an unforgettable Susan Bullock in the title role, reveals it as a must-see masterpiece.
Jones updates the action to 1953, and sets it in a stylized village hall where a local community is staging an Elizabethan pageant. The double timeframe works beautifully, and the opulent public life of Elizabeth I is shown in a series of beautiful dances, masques and ceremonies, composed in Britten’s sunniest and most approachable style.
Her complicated relationship with the hot-headed Earl of Essex (Toby Spence), who ultimately rebels against her, provides the emotional charge of the opera. When an impetuous Essex bursts in on the bald old queen before she has a chance to don her wig and gown, the effect is devastating.
Public pageantry, private torment -- it’s pure operatic gold. Bullock, now haughty, now vulnerable, now tender, does it full justice. She also displays a gift for savage comedy when she sports an ill-fitting dress in order to provoke Essex’s wife, who has dared to dress too gaudily in her presence.
Toby Spence makes a dashing Essex too, and his voice rings with vigor and desire. Mark Stone (Mountjoy) and Kate Royal (Penelope) add vocal luster to a uniformly excellent cast, and Paul Daniel conducts with a fine ear for detail and texture. Glorious indeed. Rating: *****.
Daniel Radcliffe continues to expand his post-Harry Potter repertoire with an engaging performance as the sweet-natured hero of Martin McDonagh’s 1997 comedy “The Cripple of Inishmaan.”
Set on a remote Irish island in 1934, it tells of a young man with twisted limbs who hears that an American film crew on a neighboring island are looking for extras. If he can get across the water, he might be able to escape the casual blunt cruelty of the local townspeople (a source of much of the play’s dark humor) and build a new life in America.
Radcliffe radiates a charming air of innocence and hope, even if he doesn’t dig deeper into any complex aspects of his role. The rest of the cast are terrific, especially Sarah Greene as Helen, the foulmouthed and tough-as-boots love interest.
Christopher Oram creates an atmospheric revolving set out of gray stones, and director Michael Grandage keeps the tone on a clever knife-edge of comedy and pathos. Another hit for the Michael Grandage Company. Rating: ****.
There’s more bittersweet Irishness in “The Night Alive,” a new play at the Donmar by Conor McPherson, who also directs.
When feckless, good-hearted Dublin drifter Tommy (Ciaran Hinds) meets a luckless streetwalker (Caoilfhionn Dunne) and offers her a place to stay in his messy bedsit (designs Soutra Gilmour), his life takes a few new turns for the better -- and a few for the worse.
The “reformed prostitute” theme is as old as Methusala and twice as tired, and McPherson doesn’t bring much that’s new to it. What he offers is a series of carefully delineated portraits of underclass strugglers, getting by with humor and pain. The acting is astonishingly detailed and plausible, and brings an otherwise middling piece to life. Rating: ***.
“Gloriana” is in repertoire at the Royal Opera. http://www.roh.org.uk or +44-20-7304-4000
“The Cripple of Inishmaan” is at the Noel Coward Theatre. http://www.michaelgrandagecompany.com or +44-844-482-5140
“The Night Alive” is at the Donmar Warehouse http://www.donmarwarehouse.com or +44-844-871-7624
What the Stars Mean: ***** Excellent **** Very good *** Average ** Mediocre * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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