Turbulent times – a celestial globe as an opera stage
Hosting the first ever World Opera Forum in April, the Teatro Real in Madrid presented its guests with a special gift: Benjamin Britten’s 1953 opera “Gloriana”. It staged the opera, about Queen Elizabeth I of England, within an armillary sphere, or celestial globe, representing the advances and discoveries that changed the world during the Elizabethan age. With its slanting platforms and elements moving in parallel and opposing directions, the spherical construction creates fascinating effects.
Benjamin Britten wrote the opera in 1953 to mark the coronation of the young Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. But the work focuses primarily on the inner conflicts plaguing the larger-than-life queen, Gloriana, as Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was known. The intrigue and treachery that characterised her reign was partly a result of her personal frustration, which she compensated with fleeting love affairs and clever stratagems to ensure she retained her power.
Stage designer Robert Jones modelled the stage set on the ancient device of the armillary sphere (from the Latin “armilla” for circle or bracelet) or celestial globe – an astronomical instrument for portraying the movements of celestial objects, consisting of several revolving metal rings. Moved into certain positions, they create a sphere, like a globe. The device was often used in the reign of Elizabeth I.
Here, the celestial globe is a symbol for world domination. In this production of “Gloriana”, the queen mostly appears on a platform in the centre of the armillary sphere, which fills the entire stage. This central construction is supplemented by set elements and props that refer to the various sites of the action – the palace, the queen’s chamber, a law court and a banqueting hall. These create the ambience and setting for the action of the opera.
The opera is a co-production by the English National Opera London and the Vlaamse Opera of Antwerp. It was directed by the theatre’s music director, Ivor Bolton, and director David McVicar, and Robert Jones designed the stage set.
The construction rests on the permanently inclined stage floor and encompasses a large platform, consisting of four rings and a central disc, fitted with a lowerable platform in the centre. This disc, with a diameter of 7.50 m and an inclination of 5.7 percent, represents the centre of the world and is covered in gold-coloured engravings, forming a historical map of the world. It is encircled by three gold-coloured rings which can be turned together or individually, sliding on rollers, in the same or opposing directions, controlled electronically via a system designed and built by the technicians themselves. The three rings are attached to wheels installed on a steel construction, and each ring has its own motor. Aligned in a certain position, the engravings on the rings depict a compass. The rings have a diameter of 12 m, 10.5 m and 9 m. On each of the rings is an arch with a diameter – or height – of 11.8 m, 9.85 m and 8 m. The arches each turn along with the rings and the combination of their opposing or parallel movements creates ingenious effects.
The sun and moon are both free-hanging in the flies, as is the elliptical orbit, and all integrated in the permanent stage machinery, which moves and controls them.
As reported in the BTR 2018 special edition, the simultaneous organisation of the World Opera Forum and preparing for the premiere of “Gloriana” posed a major challenge for the team of technicians and all members of staff at the Teatro Real. It is, then, all the more amazing that this production, using such a complex stage set and demanding the greatest precision, went off without hitch and made a big impression for all the right reasons.