Richard Jones’ lively ‘retro pageant’ take on Britten’s notorious flop proves anything but “Boriana”.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, July 4

The opening night of Benjamin Britten’s grand, national operatic commission to celebrate the accession of the young Queen Elizabeth still remains one of opera’s mysteries. With the entire British Royal Family in attendance and “an invited audience of stuck pigs”, as Britten noted waspishly, perhaps it never stood a chance. “Boriana”, some called it. Nevertheless, Her Majesty, who had been personally introduced to the work in advance by the composer himself, was said to have applauded for eight unbroken minutes. Even good old Prince Philip had reportedly boned up on the libretto in advance of the official gala (which one can’t see him doing nowadays before dropping in to catch a revival of Birtwistle’s Minotaur). The second night ‘paying’ audience were considerably more enthusiastic, and yet the canard of its lukewarm reception and subsequent failure has become legendary.

For the Britten centenary, the Royal Opera House have taken the bold step of choosing Gloriana, which like Her Majesty is itself celebrating a 60 year anniversary, rather than the more obviously marketable Grimes, Screws, Dreams and Budds. And good on them, for Richard Jones’ witty retro pageant production comes over as a great deal more fun than has previously seemed the case. Jones’ conceit presents the work as a show within a show – a royal variety performance, set in something akin to the Public Hall Budleigh Salterton circa 1953, complete with new Queen in gracious attendance.

It’s all very droll, echoing the sense of civic hope and pride that must have been in the air at the time of the Coronation, but also allowing us a smile at the pompous side of such amateur confections. Ultz’ ingenious design is all cardboard and strings and the costumes have a delightfully makeshift quality to them while just about staying on the right side of naff.

What doesn’t work quite so well is Jones’ determination to show us the fussy stage management machinations in the wings on either side. A rather “fearful old female” directs entrances and exits from stage right while an effete directorial type quietly emotes along with the action on stage left. Another chap regularly pulls on ropes to no visible effect. In Mimi Jordan Sherin’s hit and miss lighting design these figures are frequently better lit than the onstage principals and regularly distract from moments of crucial intimacy.

If you can focus on the stage action however you are rewarded with much clever byplay including a walk on line of schoolboys who hold up cards to tell us, scene by scene, where we are. The Norwich tableau, compete with hand-bell ringers and automated plants, is a delight from start to finish capturing the naïve patriotism of the day. The Queen sits on a throne backed by a mosaic of marrows, pumpkins and turnips spelling out “E II R” while the Royal Opera chorus, clad in fetching green outfits, belt out the famous choral dances like a dream. The later courtly dance scene also comes off well, showcasing some nifty footwork from several of the principals (although replacing the jester’s dance with some blacked-up boys cooking a missionary seems a trifle de trop).

As the eponymous Queen Elizabeth, Susan Bullock brandishes her Wagnerian credentials to fine effect. Her formidable upper tones cut through even the most substantial orchestrations allied with some quite magnificent diction. She’s a little weak in the lower middle – a victim of the usual “is this a soprano or a mezzo role” dilemma – but she’s terrific in her two prayers, capturing a real sense of drama and pathos despite the vastness of the floodlit stage.

Toby Spence is a fine Essex, ardent of tone and manner, and building his character nicely towards the famous scene where he bursts in on the bald old lady whom he professes to love. Despite a poorly timed lighting cue, in the hands of Spence, and especially Bullock, this moment packs even more of a punch than is generally the case. Looking like an ailing Mo Mowlam, only the flintiest of hearts could hold a grudge against this woman for her previous capricious and callous behaviour. The subsequent dressing table scene is highly moving.

Mark Stone as Lord Mountjoy is quite superb, revealing what a classy baritone he has become of late. His crystal clear, focussed sound soars over the serried ranks in even the largest of choral scenes. Other nice performances include Clive Bayley as a sonorous Sir Walter Raleigh, Patricia Bardon as a warmly sympathetic Countess of Essex and the honeyed tones of Andrew Tortise who sings ravishingly as the Spirit of the Masque. Brindley Sherratt is luxury casting as the blind ballad-singer.

Less successful are Jeremy Carpenter (a replacement alas for Peter Coleman-Wright) who sounds well enough as Cecil but is short on dramatic nuance and Kate Royal, who sings prettily as Lady Rich but lacks the vocal heft to make her pivotal role in the penultimate scene carry the necessary weight. Paul Daniels meanwhile conducts it all with great clarity and discipline.

It’s a pity that in the final scene, with it’s mix of the spoken and sung, Bullock fails to make her mark, possibly because Jones is not quite sure what he’s doing (Sarah Walker was utterly devastating here in the old ENO production). As it turns out, the director is more focussed on what happens after his onstage monarch’s demise. In a touching final image, as he watches the departing modern Majesty, the formerly rather annoying directorial figure steps forward and surreptitiously holds the hand of his leading man – so it was Ben Britten after all!