Manchester Theatre Awards

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Buxton Festival: Albert Herring

Eric Crozier and Benjamin Britten
Buxton Festival
Buxton Opera House
08 July 2017 to 22 July 2017

Albert Herring is one of my favourites among Britten’s operas. It’s a gentle comedy of English village life, as it was just after the Second World War (even though it’s based on a French story originally), with a libretto brilliantly written by Eric Crozier and some priceless opportunities for characterization by the principal singers.
Basically the story is that the village committee of Loxford meet to choose a May queen, who must be a girl of unimpeachable morals and manners – and there aren’t any in the village. So they choose the dutiful and rather naïve Albert, who helps his mother in the greengrocer’s shop, and make him King of the May instead. At the fete his lemonade is spiced with rum by the young and lively couple, Sid and Nancy, and he disappears for a night of … well, we never find out, as he tells a good but unlikely tale when the village worthies, having convinced he must be dead, realize he’s OK after all. He asks Nancy afterwards ‘I didn't lay it on too thick, did I?’, so what really happened in his night of self-discovery remains a mystery.
Albert Herring can work in a large opera house and also in a small-scale setting. At Buxton, director Francis Matthews had the opportunity to present it in an ideal environment, and with designer Adrian Linford’s detailed and evocatively piecemeal sets – adapting quite neatly to the changing scenes – the visual presentation was delicious. We are reminded of the post-war time of the opera’s composition by little details of crumbling masonry and left-over hardware from the years of conflict, and part of the appeal of the piece is that it catches the note of liberation (especially of young people) that was just on its cusp at the time.
Musically the performance was of a very high standard: conductor Justin Doyle has done the piece before in one of Opera North’s interpretations and knows not only it but most of the cast extremely well, as a number of them are Opera North regulars. Yvonne Howard as the tweedy grande dame and moral crusader, Lady Billows, was magnificent, and Heather Shipp brought Mrs Glum to being Albert’s mum. Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts was the pompous ass of a mayor, Mr Upfold, and Mary Hegarty delightful as the schoolteacher, Miss Wordsworth.
Kathryn Rudge was a star in her own right as Nancy the red-lipsticked blonde bombshell, and Morgan Pearse (whose gifts are new to me) was a model of a singer in tone, diction and acting ability as Sid.
Lucy Schaufer, Nicholas Merryweather and John Molloy completed the ‘adult’ cast admirably, and Sophie Gallagher and Bonnie Callaghan as the girls Emmie and Cis were excellent (Nicholas Challier, as young Harry, walked his part the night I went while RNCM rising star Charlotte Trepess sang his role from the wings).
Best of all was Bradley Smith as Albert, a young singer of golden tone and impressive acting ability – never over the top but believably engaging as the hapless Albert.
However, there was one aspect of this production which I thought intrusive and pointless. Francis Matthews has invented a silent character he calls ‘The Stranger’ – in his trilby and double-breasted suit I’d call him The Spiv – who seems to shadow Albert a lot and in the long entracte between acts two and three interacts with him in a kind of slow pas de deux.
Symbolic of something? Maybe – it’s an idea that’s been used before and adds very little to the genius of the original.

 

Reviewer: Robert Beale

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