Op. 53 (1953, revised 1966)

Opera in three acts
Libretto by William Plomer, after Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex

Setting: England, around 1600
Duration: 2 hours and 30 minutes
First performance: 8 June 1953, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London


Queen Elizabeth the First: Soprano
Robert Devereux (Earl of Essex): Tenor
Frances (Countess of Essex): Mezzo-Soprano
Charles Blount (Lord Mountjoy): Baritone
Penelope (Lady Rich) (Sister to Essex): Soprano
Sir Robert Cecil (Secretary of the Council): Baritone
Sir Walter Raleigh (Captain of the Guard): Bass
Henry Cuffe (A satellite of Essex): Baritone
A Lady in Waiting: Soprano
A Blind Ballad Singer: Bass
The Recorder of Norwich: Bass
A Housewife: Mezzo-soprano
The Spirit of the Masque: Tenor
The Master of Ceremonies: Tenor
The City Crier: Baritone
Chorus: Citizens, Maids of Honour, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Household, Courtiers, Masquers, Old Men
Dancers: Time, Concord, Country Girls, Rustics, Fishermen, Morris Dancer
Actors: Pages, Ballad-Singers Runner, Phantom of the Queen

What’s it About?

Act 1. At a royal jousting tournament, the ambitious Earl of Essex picks a fight with Lord Mountjoy and is wounded. Queen Elizabeth’s punishment is that henceforth they shall always attend court together. They become friends. Cecil warns his monarch about Essex’s unruliness, and about the likely threat of an armada from Spain. Working on her fondness for him, Essex flatters the queen and asks to be appointed her Deputy in Ireland, to quell the rebel Tyrone. Elizabeth temporises, conscious of her position as monarch and wary of his impetuousness.

Act 2. In Norwich, the Queen is welcomed by the citizens and entertained with a masque of Time and Concord. At Essex’s London house, the Earl, his sister Lady Rich and her love Mountjoy plan their advancement to power: his wife counsels caution. At a grand ball in the Palace of Whitehall, the Queen, perceiving the lavish dress of Lady Essex’s wife to be an insult, insists the ladies change after a strenuous dance; she reappears wearing the offending dress, which is much too small for her, to shame Lady Essex. Essex is furious, but mollified when Elizabeth announces the appointment he has long craved and sends him to Ireland.

Act 3. His campaign, however, is a failure and on his unexpected return he insists on admittance to the monarch while she dresses: he confronts an old woman without wig or make-up. He pleads his cause, but she is unconvinced and later Cecil warns her of his scheme to replace her. In London, Essex’s supporters fail in their attempt to win the people over to his rebellion. Essex is condemned, and when a deputation of his wife, sister and friend to plead for him goes badly awry, Elizabeth signs the warrant for his execution. In the final scene, the dying monarch recalls the tests she has withstood during her reign.

Did You Know?

1. The idea for Gloriana first occurred to Britten whilst he was talking with the Earl of Harewood about nationalism in opera during a skiing holiday in Austria.

2. Britten’s notes suggest that he originally considered the idea of incorporating Mary, Queen of Scots into the plot of Gloriana, but he eventually decided not to include her in the cast.

3. Britten had a number of National Gallery postcards of famous Renaissance figures, including Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex, on his desk as he worked on the music for Gloriana to keep him in mind of the period in which the opera was set.

4. When Imogen Holst remarked on the playful rhythm of the boys’ chorus in the opera’s final act Britten acknowledged that he was able to compose such mischievous music because he was ‘still thirteen’.

5. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh attended a dinner at the home of the Earl and Countess of Harewood in May 1953 at which they were given a sneak preview of some of the music from the opera. Gloriana premiered at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 8 June 1953, six days after the coronation of the Elizabeth II, to whom it is dedicated.


3 flutes (II, III doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets in B flat & A, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon,

4 horns, 3 trumpets in C, 3 trombones, tuba

Timpani, 4 percussion (glockenspiel, triangle woodblock, tambourine, side drum, tenor drum, bass drum, cymbal, tam-tam, whip, tubular bells in D, E, F, G, A, B flat and C), harp, celesta


Stage instruments

Act I scene I: On Stage Trumpets in multiples of three
Act II scene 3: On stage Strings and/or 5 woodwind (scored ad lib), pipe and tabor (small side drum without snares)
Act III scene 2: On stage Gittern, drum; Off stage Side drum (several)
Act III scene 3: On stage Harp; Off stage Side drum, bass drum, cymbal, wind machine


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