Gloriana, Op. 53, is an opera in three acts by Benjamin Britten to an English libretto by William Plomer, based on Lytton Strachey's 1928 Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History. The first performance was presented at the Royal Opera House, London, in 1953 throughout the celebrations of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Gloriana was the name given by the 16th-century poet Edmund Spenser to his character representing Queen Elizabeth I in his poem The Faerie Queene. It became the popular name given to Elizabeth I. It is recorded that the troops at Tilbury hailed her with cries of "Gloriana, Gloriana, Gloriana", after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

The opera depicts the relationship between Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex, and was composed for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953. Several in the audience of its gala opening were disappointed by the opera, which presents the first Elizabeth as a sympathetic, but flawed, character motivated largely by vanity and desire. The premiere was one of Britten's few critical failures, and the opera wasn't included in the series of complete Decca recordings conducted by the composer. Notwithstanding a symphonic suite extracted from the opera by the composer (Opus 53a), which includes the Courtly Dances, is often performed as a concert piece.

Performance history

On 22 November 1963, the composer's fiftieth birthday, Bryan Fairfax conducted a concert performance, which was the opera's first performance in any form after its inaugural production in 1953. When the production toured in 1954 to Manchester and Birmingham, Joan Sutherland sang the role of Penelope.The second staging of Gloriana was undertaken by Sadler's Wells Opera in 1966 with Sylvia Fisher in the title role.

In 1973, at The Proms in London, a concert version under conductor Charles Mackerras was performed and recorded.

Another eleven years were to pass before a recording appeared, that of 1984 under Mark Elder by the English National Opera. This production additionally toured to the United States in New York, New Orleans and Texas. Other productions of the opera in Britain have been undertaken by Welsh National Opera in 1992 and by Opera North in 2002. Central City Opera (in Colorado) presented the North American premiere production of the opera in 2001, starring Joyce Castle as Elizabeth I. The Opera Theatre of Saint Louis mounted the work in 2005, with Christine Brewer as Elizabeth I.

The Royal Opera House in London presented a sixtieth anniversary performance, to celebrate both the anniversary and the centenary of Britten's birth in June-July 2013.


RoleVoice typePremiere cast, 8 June 1953
(Conductor: John Pritchard)
Queen Elizabeth IsopranoJoan Cross
Robert Devereux, Earl of EssextenorPeter Pears
Frances, Countess of Essexmezzo-sopranoMonica Sinclair
Charles Blount, Lord MountjoybaritoneGeraint Evans
Penelope (Lady Rich) sister to EssexsopranoJennifer Vyvyan
Sir Robert Cecil Secretary of the CouncilbaritoneArnold Matters
Sir Walter Raleigh, Captain of the GuardbassFrederick Dalberg
Henry Cuffe a satellite of EssexbaritoneRonald Lewis
A Lady-in-WaitingsopranoAdele Leigh
A Blind Ballad-SingerbassInia Te Wiata
The Recorder of NorwichbassMichael Langdon
A Housewifemezzo-sopranoEdith Coates
The Spirit of the MasquetenorWilliam McAlpine
The Master of CeremoniestenorDavid Tree
The City CrierbaritoneRhydderch Davies
TimedancerDesmond Doyle
ConcorddancerSvetlana Beriosova
Chorus: citizens, maids of honour, ladies and gentlemen of the household, courtiers, masquers, old men, men and boys of Essex's following, councillors
Dancers: country girls, fisherman, Morris Dancers
Actors: pages, ballad-singer's runner, phantom of Queen Elizabeth
Musicians on the stage: state trumpeters, dance orchestra, pipe and tabor, gittern, drummer


Time: The late sixteenth century.
Place: England.

Act 1

Scene 1: A tournament

Lord Mountjoy wins a jousting tournament. Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, provokes Mountjoy into fighting with him and is slightly wounded. Queen Elizabeth arrives and scolds the men for their jealousy. She requests that they attend her at court as friends. Mountjoy and Essex make peace and the crowd praise Elizabeth.

Scene 2: The Queen's apartment, Nonsuch Palace

Elizabeth and Cecil discuss the rivalry between Mountjoy and Essex. Cecil warns Elizabeth about the threat of another Armada from Spain and cautions her that it would be dangerous to show too much affection to the impulsive Essex. After Cecil has gone, Essex himself enters and sings to the Queen to take her mind off political problems. He asks her to let him go to Ireland to counter the rebellion led by the Earl of Tyrone. He grows impatient when the Queen shows reluctance, and accuses Cecil and Walter Raleigh of plotting against him. Elizabeth sends him away and prays for strength to rule her people well.

Act 2

Scene 1: Norwich

The Queen, accompanied by Essex, visits Norwich, and talks with the Recorder of Norwich. A masque celebrating Time and Concord is given in her honour.

Scene 2: Essex's house

Essex's sister Lady Penelope Rich meets Mountjoy for an illicit tryst in the garden. Essex and his wife Frances join them, and Essex denounces the Queen for thwarting his plans to go to Ireland. He, Mountjoy and Lady Rich imagine gaining power as the Queen gets older, but Frances urges caution.

Scene 3: The Palace of Whitehall

A ball is in progress at the Palace. Frances, Lady Essex, is wearing a beautifully ornate dress, which is much admired by members of the court. The Queen commands the musicians to play an energetic melody; the courtiers dance a set of five energetic "Courtly Dances". The ladies retire to change their linen. Lady Essex enters, wearing a plainer dress than before and tells Lady Rich that her original dress has gone missing. The Queen arrives wearing Lady Essex's dress, which is far too short and tight for her. She mocks Lady Essex and withdraws again. Mountjoy, Essex and Lady Rich comfort the humiliated Lady Essex. Essex expresses his fury at the Queen's behaviour, but calms down when Elizabeth returns, in her own clothes. She appoints Essex Lord Deputy of Ireland. Everyone celebrates.

Act 3

Scene 1: Nonsuch Palace

The Queen's maids gossip about Essex's failure to control the Irish rebellion. Essex bursts in and insists on seeing the Queen immediately, even though she's wigless and in her dressing gown. Elizabeth sadly admits to Essex that she's an old woman. She receives him kindly and is initially sympathetic to his troubles, but grows impatient as he complains about his enemies at court. When he has left, her maids dress her and make up her face. Cecil arrives and warns her that the Irish rebels and the hotheaded Essex both pose a threat to her reign. Elizabeth agrees that Essex should be kept under house arrest.

Scene 2: A street in the City of London

A ballad singer recounts Essex's attempts to incite rebellion, while Essex's followers try to gather new recruits. A herald announces that Essex is branded a traitor, and that anyone who supports him will be guilty of treason.

Scene 3: The Palace of Whitehall

Essex has been sent to the Tower of London. Cecil, Raleigh and additional councillors try to persuade the Queen to sentence Essex to death, but she's reluctant. Alone, she muses on her continued fondness for Essex. Lady Essex, Lady Rich and Lord Mountjoy arrive to beg for mercy for Essex. The Queen treats the gentle Lady Essex kindly and reassures her that she and her children won't suffer. Notwithstanding she becomes angry when the proud Lady Rich implies that the Queen needs Essex to rule effectively. Elizabeth refuses to listen to further entreaties and signs Essex's death warrant. Alone again, she reflects on her relationship with Essex and her own mortality.