Gloriana is an opera in three acts by Benjamin Britten to an English libretto by William Plomer, based on Elizabeth and Essex by Lytton Strachey. First performance: Royal Opera House, London, 1953.
It depicts the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I of England and the Earl of Essex, and was composed for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen is said to have been 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 was not included in the series of complete Decca recordings conducted by the composer. However, the work has been well-received in revivals since Britten's death.
A set of Courtly Dances from the opera is often performed separately as a concert piece.
Mountjoy wins a jousting tournament. Essex challenges him to a duel and is wounded. The queen scolds the men for their jealousy. Cecil informs the queen of an affair between Penelope and Mountjoy. Essex woos the queen on the lute, and gains permission to attack the Irish rebel Tyrone. The queen prays for strength.
A masque is given in the queen's honor. Mountjoy and Penelope have a tryst in the garden. Essex denounces the queen for thwarting his military plans. The courtiers dance a set of five "Courtly Dances" during which dancers are thrown into the air by their partners. The ladies retire. To punish Lady Essex for wearing too fancy a dress, the queen wears it herself. Essex is appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland.
Essex arranges a truce with Tyrone. He bursts into the queen's dressing room to give her the news. The queen is dressing, and orders his arrest for such insolence. He escapes and tries to raise an army against the queen. He is captured and condemned. Cecil believes the queen will pardon Essex. Penelope, Lady Essex, and Mountjoy all support the pardon, but this only stiffens the queen's resolve, and she signs his death warrant. The queen wants to be a wise ruler as she faces her own mortality.