“One of the great disasters of operatic history”, declared Lord Harewood. The subject in question was Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana. The project’s distinguished producer, managing director of the Royal Opera House, was in a state of despair following the work’s premiere on June 8, 1953. The glittering crowd in attendance at Covent Garden that night had come expecting a feel-good commemoration extolling the reign of Elizabeth I composed in honour of the newly coronated Elizabeth II. It was to be a night of uplifting patriotic sentiment, a triumphant proclamation that Britain had at last passed out of the long darkness of the war years. The production that greeted the gathered VIPs was anything but what they anticipated. The opera’s imposing heroine, the great Tudor monarch herself, was presented as a monument of contradictions, shrewd, insecure, loving, paranoid who, in the interests of political expediency, had condemned her witless lover, the Earl of Essex, to the executioner’s axe. Here was a damaged queen, a prisoner in a web of dark intrigue. The audience of invited diplomats and dignitaries was aghast at the subtext. Gloriana was roundly condemned by the Establishment and effectively banished from London’s premier opera house for the next sixty years.

Voicebox: Opera in Concert brings Benjamin Britten’s still infrequently performed historical tragedy to Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre with a glorious Gloriana of powerful albeit humble proportions. Although sparingly staged, singers, chorus and piano accompanist, Peter Tiefenbach, all perform with exceptional ability. The panorama of soundscapes effectively evokes a world of compelling mental images. The pomp and circumstance of Britten’s emblematic drama is sketched in vibrant musical terms, visually limited certainly, but immensely satisfying nevertheless. The much speculated regal affair as related by librettist William Plomer, borrowing heavily from Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex, takes on a stark dimension in this distilled telling of the tale.

A jousting tournament is in progress. The rakish young Earl of Essex, knowingly insults his rival at court, the victorious Lord Mountjoy. Essex is wounded in the ensuing duel. Elizabeth arrives on the scene and promptly restores peace. The two noblemen are ordered to reconcile and serve her as friends, she proclaims mischievously.

Later, in the seclusion of Nonsuch Palace, Elizabeth’s trusted senior advisor, Sir Robert Cecil, counsels the Queen to resist heaping favour on the impulsive Earl particularly at a time of grave national peril. Secret reports suggest that the Spanish are planning to launch a second Armada. No sooner has Cecil departed when Essex enters, charming as ever, but soon grows petulant when the Queen denies him command of an army tasked with suppressing rebellion in Ireland. Elizabeth dismisses him. Alone in her apartment, she prays for God’s guidance to rule her people well.

Months later the Queen progresses to Norwich where she is entertained by the local citizens with a masque.

Meanwhile back in London, Essex’s sister, Lady Penelope Rich, and her lover, Mountjoy, scheme for advancement at court. Essex and wife Frances join them. Essex privately curses the Queen for thwarting his quest for fame and influence. Frances urges everyone to exercise great caution.

The scene shifts to the Palace of Whitehall where a lavish ball is taking place. Lady Essex is dressed in a splendid gown. The Queen notes the stir it creates among her courtiers. All are commanded to dance the high-spirited Lavolta. Elizabeth retires with the ladies to change their soiled linen only to return wearing Frances’ gown herself. The length is much too short and the fit far too snug for the Queen. Embarrassed, she withdraws. Lady Essex is humiliated. The Earl is offended. His outrage soon abates. Elizabeth returns to announce his appointment as Lord Deputy of Ireland.

Time passes. The Earl of Essex makes a sudden reappearance at Nonsuch, bursting into the monarch’s bedchamber, catching Elizabeth unawares, minus wig and make-up. Essex’s campaign has ended in massacre and defeat. At first the Queen is sympathetic but soon grows weary of her once precious admirer’s attempts to shift blame from himself. Essex storms out. Cecil enters. Elizabeth agrees that the hotheaded Earl poses a threat and must be arrested.

On the streets of London a herald proclaims the Earl has been branded a traitor.

In a stateroom at Whitehall, the Queen resists the pleas of Cecil and her councillors to sign a warrant for the Earl’s execution. Even now he has a place in her heart. Lady Essex, Lady Rich and Mountjoy arrive to beg for Essex’s life. Lady Penelope provokes the Queen’s fury when she suggests that England’s aging monarch needs her noble brother’s help to rule. With a stroke of her pen, Elizabeth sends Essex to his death. Alone again, she muses on happier times never more to be.

The notion of outsider vs. the prevailing order was a motif that obviously appealed to Britten. Many of his operas before and after Gloriana explored it. A mighty monarch, an exile in her own court, loved by her subjects but isolated, was as graphic a template as he must have wished. The scattered scenic construction of Plomer’s libretto was the ideal form to zoom in on the conflicting impulses that drove his reimagined, very modern sixteenth century Queen. But Gloriana is no formula piece.

The commission, publicly funded by a newly formed Arts Council,  was to be a “national” opera, as Britten called it, recognizably British at its musical heart, melodically accessible, rooted in familiar culture and tradition. The finished product was as startling as it was original then and now, a synthesis of musical theatre, dance, folk songs and sung/spoken prose and poetry.

With its clear focus on Britten’s unique achievement as a singularly English composer, Voicebox brings an ample measure of Gloriana’s musical values to the foreground.

As the opera’s towering centre of attention, Gloriana the Queen herself, Betty Waynne Allison gives a performance of great theatrical presence and vocal sophistication. Gifted with a commanding dramatic soprano, Allison, essentially omnipresent in all three acts,  more than surmounts the daunting vocal challenges of the role. There is a dignity and grace in this voice overlaid with a robust athleticism capable of pivoting from soft sentiment to steely purpose on the edge of an emotional dime. The BC-based singer’s Elizabeth is as tender as she is imposing, as vulnerable as she is triumphant, Allison’s clear unaffected instrument slicing to the core of the Queen’s anguish. It is a remarkable achievement.

Adam Luther unleashes his nimble, vibrant tenor as the Earl of Essex, singing with a rich depth of tone and confidence. Britten’s lovely paired madrigals, the so-called Lute Songs sung by Essex to distract the Queen, however briefly, from weighty matters of state are enchantingly performed by this gifted young artist with a breezy air and sweetness. Luther, a frequent visitor to the COC mainstage and graduate of the Company’s exceptional Ensemble Studio program, is utterly convincing as the dashing feckless Earl so irresistible to a Queen desperate for human contact.

Baritone Jesse Clark sings a dangerous Mountjoy, crafty and cunning. Soprano Jennifer Ann Sullivan is a devious, self-absorbed Lady Penelope. Mezzo Christina Campsall as Frances is a moving figure of pure opposing goodness. Sir Robert Cecil is sung by Dion Mazerolle, a fine, resonant baritone, his voice an iron fist in a velvet glove.

The Opera in Concert chorus under the as always unwavering direction of Robert Cooper performs to spectacular effect, engaged by Britten as courtly commentators in palace scenes, townsfolk and rustics elsewhere. The celebrated Act II masque built on a series of discrete choral dances and dramatic allegories, the entire ceremony sung a cappella, is delightfully presented. What is lacking in stage action is at least partly compensated here by the sheer liveliness of the choral sound.

Music director, Peter Tiefenbach cannot be over-praised. Rarely does piano accompaniment leap from the keys in such a variety of boldly implied orchestral colours.

With its spirited performance of Britten’s self-admitted “slighted child”, Voicebox: Opera in Concert scores a national premiere. This is a fine Gloriana, theatrically modest yet musically grand, a splendid addition to the composer’s centenary. The company itself celebrates its own milestone this year. For forty years, Canada’s courageous concert pioneer has cast a spotlight on rarely sung opera. Its 2013/14 season is clearly off to a glowing start.