United Kingdom Britten. Albert Herring (1947): Orchestra, Chorus and Soloists of the Royal Northern College of Music, Clark Rundell (conductor), Director Stefan Janski. Stage, Set and Costume designer, Lara Booth, RNCM Theatre, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, 12.12.2011 (RJF)
Every time I write a review of an operatic performance by vocal students at Manchester’s internationally renowned Royal Northern College of Music, it seems I start with a eulogy about the virtues of Stefan Janski’s production. That being so, I am tempted to skip it this time, except that would hardly be fair to him. His vast experience greatly facilitates RNCM students in presenting outstanding performances of diverse repertoire to enthusiastic and capacity audiences, as was the case here with these double cast performances of Britten’s third opera. This was the composer’s first shot at comic opera, albeit with more than a touch of pathos. I remember that Janski wrote that comic opera, particularly operetta, presented greater problems to young singers than those of a more dramatic or serious nature. That may well be so, but, I would suggest that the works of Britten present even greater challenges for a young singer. There are few occasions when the vocal line follows the melody; it is all about the music setting the scene that Britten envisages and the singers learning the time signatures and pitch the composer demands in his diverse orchestration. This is something that Elgin Thomas, in the eponymous role in this cast, touches on in his response in the programme to a question about the challenges faced by interpreters of this complex score. He responds that repetitive practice is necessary. This is true, but also, I would suggest, being put on a stage, recognising the scene, knowing what is going on gives plenty of confidence and these are factors that Janski’s coaching so manifestly allows and fosters alongside a realistic , well designed set.
In this production Lara Booth produced set designs that drew warm applause for the opening in Lady Billows’ house and also the greengrocery store in which Albert works under his mother constant supervision. Ms Booth is also responsible for the period costumes, which are very welcome – no updating or concepts here.
The singing was of a uniformly high quality from all the ten leading roles with one or two caveats about diction among the sopranos. Importantly, all costumes and detailed make-up and hairstyles helped portray each character with clarity and this must have been a great help to the singers in building the role each was interpreting as well as helping to overcome the difficulties posed by the music. Elgin Thomas as Albert was outstanding as singer and actor, portraying both the role of conformist, browbeaten son of the opening acts, as well as the wayward who goes on a spree with his prize money, to near perfection. His strong tenor voice had the requisite clarity to go along with his acted conviction. Daniel Shelvy’s equally strong baritone and his lanky appearance with cap askew complete with delivery bike conveyed the perfect iconoclast that Albert quietly yearns to become. Sid’s canoodling with Sarah Richmond’s clearly enunciated and acted Nancy made a fine pair in both egging Albert on and later worrying that their doctoring of his drink might have had desperate consequences. Matthew Kellet’s warm tone and clear diction as the policeman was well realised also in his acting, a field where the vicar and mayor portrayed by Adam Player and Sean Boyes respectively could have put in a little more, particularly in Act Three, though both sang well. Heather Lowe as Florence Pike and Jennifer Rust as Lady Billows acted their roles with some distinction whilst failing to get their words across all of the time, the audience consequently missing some of the humour. While I recognise the difficulties diction represents for sopranos in particular, the small orchestra should have facilitated them more than they took advantage of. Thomas Medley as Harry made me worry that he thought more dire things were about to overtake him than a mere delayed visit to the loo! He sang with pleasing clear tone, as did his fellow ‘children’.
Whilst giving the singers support Clark Rundell and his student orchestra did justice to Britten’s complex score with its many complex undertones.
This cast will perform again on 15th December whilst the alternate cast will perform on 13th and 17th of December.
Robert J Farr