United Kingdom Britten: Albert Herring (chamber opera in three acts): English Touring Opera, Aurora Orchestra / Michael Rosewell (conductor), Northcott Theatre, Exeter, 25.10.2012 (AB)
Albert Herring : Mark Wilde (tenor)
Lady Billows: Jennifer Rhys-Davies (soprano)
Florence Pike: Rosie Aldridge (mezzo-soprano)
Miss Wordsworth: Anna-Clare Monk (soprano)
Mr Gedge, the vicar: Charles Johnston (baritone)
Mr Upfold, the mayor: Richard Roberts (tenor)
Superintendent Budd: Tim Dawkins (bass)
Sid: Charles Rice (baritone)
Nancy: Martha Jones (mezzo-soprano)
Mrs Herring: Clarissa Meek (mezzo-soprano)
Cis: Emily-Jane Thomas (soprano)
Emmie: Erin Hughes (soprano)
Harry: Alistair Austin / Benedict Munden / Guy Fenton / Oliver Leach
Director: Christopher Rolls
Designer: Neil Irish
Lighting Designer: Guy Hoare
I am so glad I braved the misty country roads of Devon and Somerset and drove to hear Albert Herring performed at the Northcott Theatre. It proved to be a captivating performance and (to mix metaphors) ran “like clockwork and a proverbial “well-oiled machine”.
The production was of the highest standard, and, considering English Touring Opera has 30 yrs of experience at working in a wide variety of venues, I suppose it was not surprising. However, the Northcott Theatre was designed in the 1960s as a repertory theatre rather than for opera performances, having a rather dry, if immediate, acoustic, and an auditorium of steeply raked seating for the maximum audience of 538, which is placed very close to the orchestra pit. This means that the singers did not get much ambient help from the hall to add “bloom” to their voices.
In the opening few minutes, too, many audience members, must have struggled, as I did, to hear their words over the orchestra’s output. However, their delivery and diction throughout was crisp and clear, and their acting skills made this pastiche of English country life in the early 20th century all the more amusing for their Exeter audience, many of whom would have recognised similar characters from days gone by in their home villages.
The detail in this production was superb: the set was simple, but effective. Was it a glassless glasshouse that enclosed the stage, or a wooden representation of a cage which allowed us to observe, goldfish bowl like, the characters within a psychological prison, whose “inmates” bowed to the “caste” system of rural English society.
The costumes were wonderful: the smart uniform of Superintendent Budd, the pretty dresses of Miss Wordsworth, the typical outfits of the vicar, mayor, children and Lady Billows – how on earth Jennifer Rhys-Davies managed not to “perspire” (as ladies occasionally did in days gone by) wearing her layers of tweed and, presumably, padding. Detail was there: the falling down short socks in the children, for example. The only strange costume was perhaps that of
Florence Pike, wearing trousers – perhaps to emphasize her already butch character, certainly rather ahead of her time in the fashion stakes! Both Rosie Aldridge and Jennifer Rhys-Davies acted out their roles with the conviction required to confirm their dominance of the village society, and with some tongue-in-cheek humour, or, in the case of Pike, just unadulterated nastiness, portrayed so well by Rosie Aldridge.
Mark Wilde, in the title role, gave a compelling performance of poor Albert Herring, who was clearly “simple” (according to the Vicar), but had some of the comical aspects of a latter-day Mr. Bean. He commanded sympathy for his plight, without over-acting. Charles Rice and Martha Jones, as Sid and Nancy made an antidote to the repressive village social system with undertones of naughtiness and some cheerful scenes. Tim Dawkins commanded the stage with the somewhat self-important role of Superintendent Budd, in immaculate dark uniform.
Michael Rosewell did an excellent job in the pit, keeping the pace and timing immaculate, supported by the members of the Aurora Orchestra. Similar remarks could apply to production and lighting. I am sure one would be hard put to find a better-paced, better cast, more interesting and enjoyable production of Albert Herring for some years to come. Even more so, considering the limitations imposed on a touring repertory company. Well done, English Touring Opera!
For an earlier review of London production, see Albert Herring