Memorable Portrayal of Small Town Life in Albert Herring

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Albert Herring: Soloists & Orchestra of English Touring Opera/Michael Rosewell (conductor), Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House, London, 4.10.2012 (CC)


Albert Herring – Mark Wilde
Nancy – Martha Jones
Florence Pike – Rosie Aldridge
Lady Billows – Jennifer Rhys-Davies
Miss Wordsworth – Anna-Clare Monk
Mr Gedge – Charles Johnston
Mr Upfold – Richard Roberts
Superintendent Budd – Tim Dawkins
Sid – Charles Rice
Mrs Herring – Clarissa Meek
Emmy – Erin Hughes
Cis – Emily-Jane Thomas

photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith

Britten’s immediately post-war opera (1946) Albert Herring has sat in the shadow of both Lucretia and Grimes. Understandably so, as the latter pair are great works that deserve their place in the repertoire. Herring is largely ignored, yet in the hands of a carefully considered production and loving performance, as was the case here, it positively flowers.

Librettist Eric Crozier took a short story by Guy de Maupassant (“Le Rosier de Madame Husson”) and made it into a thing of delight. But it is important to note that this is no G&S froth with added notes to spice the harmonies; at its heart is the tale of an outsider in a community (suddenly, Grimes becomes a near relative) and his journey to, if not enlightenment, at least the beginnings of some sort of emancipation.

The story sounds daft and indeed houses a goodly number of frolickings. The protagonist Albert Herring works in a greengrocer’s in Loxford, an imaginary town somewhere between Ipswich and Aldeburgh. It is in this town also that the imposing Lady Billows decides to revive the May Day Festival. Ergo, she needs a May Queen. But there are no virgins left (times don’t change, then) so the post is filled by a May King, Albert Herring, whose sheltered life has so far kept all such fleshly temptations at bay.

His innocence is not to last, however. A spiked drink at his “coronation” leads to his emancipatory disappearance, some poignant moments when everyone thinks him dead, and his final besozzled return ready to face his own future independently.

The comedy, like Britten’s scoring for the chamber group of instrimentalists, is deft and expert. Time and time again during the course of the evening I felt myself wondering why this piece is not performed more often. It shows a side of Britten that is at once engaging; but it is underscored, like all great art, with higher preoccupations. The idea of the outsider was close to Britten’s heart, and as we learn to feel empathy for Herring, the poor grocer’s boy, perhaps we begin to feel empathy for Britten himself. There are moments of great poignancy here enshrouded in the lightheartedness. These surface in the third and final act, particularly the magnificent ensemble “In the midst of life is death”.

The staging restricts itself to one set throughout. The idea of claustrophobia is viscerally invoked by director Christopher Rolls and designer Neil Irish; the scene is presented as a box in which the lives of Loxford’s residents unfold. Escape is unthinkable for most of them, and so it is that Herring literally breaks out of the box when he goes on his drunken escapades. Lighting is expert, enabling us to bask in the daylight of the comedy while honouring the darker moments of reflection.

Perhaps it was the lightness of approach of Michael Rosewell that pulled the opera together perfectly. Singers were never overwhelmed, and Rosewell’s players seemed intent to give him their all (a scampering extended solo for double-bass stands out). The extended Interlude in the second act was spellbinding, seeming to sum up in sound the whole ethos of the opera.

This being a comedy, the smaller parts are hardly fleshed out but the singers clearly enjoyed their caricatures. Jennifer Rhys-Davies was a brilliantly amusing Lady Billows, so full of herself and so over the top. Charles Johnstone looked and acted the part of the vicar Mr Gedge to a tee, while Tim Dawkins was a splendid Superintendent Budd (who in fact could have just stepped out of a production of Pirates of Penzance straight into here). But the evening belonged to Mark Wilde, whose assumption of the title role was little short of magnificent. From backstreet shop bungler to party animal, he seemed to live the part. His voice, too, seemed exactly right, his diction impeccable (there were no surtitles). Much thought clearly went into who should fill the roles of Sid and Nancy (baritone Charles Rice and mezzo Martha Jones), for this loving pair seemed vocally as well as dramatically perfect for each other. I loved Anna-Clare Monk’s Miss Wordsworth. Her unspeakably exaggerated gestures when she conducted the children was simply hilarious.

As Mrs Herring, Clarissa Meek presented a believable portrait of Herring mère. As an ensemble cast, this was well-nigh flawless. In tandem with a production that captured the small-town closeness of the whole thing, this was a night to remember.

Colin Clarke