Gloriana Op.53 was completed by Benjamin Britten during 1952 and the early part of the following year. This was the composer’s eighth opera. It was commissioned by Covent Garden as a part of the celebrations for the coronation of the present Queen, Elizabeth II and was dedicated to her ‘by gracious permission.’ The libretto was devised by the Anglo-African poet and novelist William Plomer (1903-1973) and is based on the ‘Bloomsbury Group’ author Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex which had been published in 1928. Britten has remarked that he and Plomer were most inspired by the relationship between ‘the two protagonists’ and the strong supporting roles of Cecil and Walter Raleigh.
Her Majesty attended the first performance at Covent Garden on 8th June 1953, six days after the coronation. Unfortunately, the Queen is said to have been unimpressed by the opera. The critical response is still subject to much debate; however there were few positive reviews for this work. The eclectic mix of prose and verse, sung and spoken text, archaic and modern English were seen as part of the problem. However, in a contemporary letter to The Times, Antony Lewis, of the Barber Institute of fine Arts at Birmingham University wrote that ‘...page after page of music of superb richness and invention testifies to ...excellence of the composer’s creative powers...’ He concludes by suggestion that it is ‘exhilarating thee hear a score that unfolds with such masterly confidence...Gloriana is indeed a worthy execution of the royal command.’
The Soliloquy and Prayer follows the scene where Essex has sung two lute songs to divert the queen. However Essex wants permission to sail to Ireland to suppress a rebellion in Tyrone. The Queen refuses and sends him away. The act ends with her praying that she ‘may rule and protect my people in peace’. Elizabeth is torn between love and duty. The queen kneels and prays to God for the strength and the grace to fulfil the high office to which she has been called.
Listen to the Soliloquy and Prayer on YouTube with Leontyne Price.