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Tenor
Britten, Benjamin: Gloriana
Act 1: Lute Song, “Happy were he” (Earl of Essex)

Roger Pines, Dramaturg, Lyric Opera of Chicago
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Aria Talk12/1/2006

Editor's Note: Tenor
Britten, Benjamin: Gloriana
Act 1: Lute Song, “Happy were he” (Earl of Essex)
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The voice of Britten’s life’s companion, Peter Pears, inspired the composer in all his music, although Pears was generally unhappy with his role in Gloriana (1953). The reckless, impetuous Earl of Essex didn’t come easily to him. Britten, however, did give this character music in Act 1 that suited Pears gloriously: the two lute songs, sung by Essex to Queen Elizabeth I. The second of these two may well be the most ravishing tenor solo in any Britten opera. If you’re a lyric tenor craving a piece of sustained, breathtakingly intimate singing that can mesmerize listeners from first phrase to last, or if you simply need to fill the English-language slot in your aria list, look no further.

Elizabeth is troubled by cares of state and by her growing love for Essex, who is dashing, ambitious and many years younger than she. Speaking in private, the Queen is warned by her adviser, Sir Robert Cecil, against any romantic attachment to Essex. She insists that she knows her duty and that marriage is not in her future. Once alone with Essex, Elizabeth asks him to take up the lute and sing to her. He regales her with a brief, lively melody but the Queen thinks it’s “too light.” She asks for something that can “evoke some far-off place or time” and carry them both away. He sings “Happy were he”: the song considers the happiness of the man who can end his days “in some unhaunted desert,” living peacefully until, at his death, “his tomb might be a bush where harmless robin dwells with gentle thrush.”

Elizabeth’s immediate response to Essex’s singing, she calls it “melting,” is significant: the voice in this music must indeed melt the listener’s heart. The melismatic passages must be shaped with extreme elegance, as must the long-sustained cadences (enjoy these — the harmony is truly ravishing) and frequent long-breathed legato phrases. The range at the top is entirely manageable, but the melisma near the end extends to low C. Your musicianship and your expressive capacity will certainly be tested in this piece but it can also do much to prove to your listeners that you have real artistry to offer.

Score: Boosey & Hawkes
Recording: Anthony Rolf Johnson in DVD, English National Opera (ArtHaus Musik label); Tom Randle in DVD, Opera North (BBC/Opus Arte label)
Timing: 4:15
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