Britten's three-act opera Gloriana was composed as a coronation opera in honor of Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Britten wanted an opera with sumptuous pageantry and a powerful story about Queen Elizabeth I and her love, in her advanced years, for the young Earl of Essex, whom she called "Robin." Britten had as his librettist William Plomer, a talented writer and strong dramatist. The premiere took place in the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden on June 8, 1953, before an aristocratic audience. The young Queen Elizabeth II was said to be delighted and flattered by the event, but the response of the audience was polite and muted.
Like coronation and royal operas of the previous several hundred years, Britten includes many tableaux of dances, processions, and state ceremonies, bringing the audience into an intensely formal and regal setting. With this sumptuousness Britten sought to flatter the new Queen. Throughout, he celebrates English history in music and dance. His influences include the traditional English masques, which historically had been used to entertain royalty, the music of the Elizabethans, of Purcell, and even of English chant. The opera opens with a fanfare, a tournament, and royal processions, and before the first act is over, there is a masque to entertain the Queen and her company. The singers' parts in the masque are in a lively, contrapuntal, a cappella style, setting them apart from the surrounding dramatic dialogue.
The second act contains a tableaux of Elizabethan dances, scored with prominent parts for reed instruments and drums. Even though the tonalities of the dance pieces are modern, the orchestral colors and the old dance forms bring immediacy to the ancient Elizabethan setting. Within this gay party atmosphere, the plot begins to develop, and Elizabeth stages a "burlesque" meant to shame her rival, the wife of Essex.
The characters of the intense drama are well drawn by Plomer and Britten. Elizabeth evolves through her struggles as a defenseless and jealous lover into a defeated monarch who must order the execution of her beloved. She is seen courting the love of her people, praying in private for strength, and creating jealous scenes in public. Her duets with Essex are superb, as she hands him the political power that proves his downfall. Her right-hand man is a smooth politician, and the characters who surround Essex and incite him to treason are handled with liveliness and energy. The initial performance of Gloriana was panned by the critics, not on grounds of the opera's musical worth, but because the portrait Plomer's story paints of the aging Elizabeth I was perceived as unflattering. Although the opera was eventually a box-office hit, intially the English could not bear the idea that the myths of the Elizabethan age were not upheld in a coronation opera meant to honor their new sovereign.