Marking the Britten Centenary with His Quintessentially English Operas

CanadaCanada Britten Festival: Pacific Opera Victoria, Victoria Symphony, Leslie Dala (conductor), Victoria Children’s Choir, Royal Theatre and Church of St John the Divine, Victoria, BC. 15-16.2.2013 (BJ)

BrittenAlbert Herring, Op. 39


Lady Billows: Sally Dibblee
Florence Pike: Susan Platts
Miss Wordsworth: Charlotte Corwin
Vicar Gedge: Peter McGillivray
Mayor Upfold: Michael Colvin
Police Superintendent Budd: Giles Tomkins
Emmie: Emlyn Sheeley
Cis: Cassandra Lemoine
Harry: Ajay Parikh-Friese
Sid: Phillip Addis
Albert Herring: Lawrence Wiliford
Nancy: Stephanie Marshall
Mrs. Herring: Rebecca Hass
Victoria Symphony


Glynis Leyshon (director)
Patrick Clark (sets and costumes)
Michael Walton (lighting)
Jacques Lemay (choreographer)
Giuseppe Pietraroia (chorus master and assistant conductor)
Robert Holliston (principal coach and répétiteur)

*Suite for Harp, Op. 83 (16 Feb. 2013)

Annabelle Vitek (harp)

The Golden Vanity, Op. 78
Noye’s Fludde, Op. 59


Voice of God: John Krich
Noye: Peter McGillivray
Sem: Adam Dyjach
Ham: Christopher Hinz
Jaffett: Richard J. Cunningham
Mrs. Sem: Cheryl Pocklington
Mrs. Ham: Julia Hensley
Mrs. Jaffett: Esther-Ruth Teel
Mrs. Noye: Rebecca Hass
Mrs. Noye’s Gossips: Raine Balson, Sidney Boegman, Gemma Knott, Isabelle Rutherford, Mariah Rutherford, Catherine Van Oort


Dancers: Emma Gillespie (Raven), Vicka Pluzhnikova (Dove)
Concertino Ensemble of Victoria Symphony members
Ripieno Ensemble of members of Victoria Conservatory of Music Strings Program
Victoria Children’s Choir
Timothy Vernon (conductor)
Alison Greene (director)
Madeleine Humer (chorus master)
Tzenka Dianova and Robert Holliston (piano duet)
Students of Victoria High School (set designs)
Students of Glenlyon Norfolk School (mask designs)

Victoria, British Columbia, being widely recognized as the most English city in Canada—it’s famous for its love for the institution of afternoon tea—it seems entirely appropriate that Pacific Opera Victoria should have chosen to celebrate Benjamin Britten’s centenary with Albert Herring, surely the most quintessentially English of the composer’s operas. The production was the flagship event in a festival that began on the 7th of February and ends with six performances of Let’s Make an Opera and The Little Sweep between the 2nd and the 10th of March.

Herring was a co-production with Vancouver Opera, whose associate conductor Leslie Dala conducted it in Victoria and did so very well, drawing polished and sensitive playing from the 15-strong ensemble—members of the Victoria Symphony—called for in the score of this chamber opera. With an equally convincing production by Glynis Leyshon—some of the best work I have seen from her—staged on Patrick Clark’s economical and effective set, the work emerged not just as a charming comedy but as an eminently serious one, throwing much light on the human condition and on the prejudices that too often render it miserable.

The cast sang in every case splendidly and in almost every case also achieved highly convincing portrayals of the characters in the story, which librettist Eric Crozier adapted (and, one might say, Englished radically) from a Maupassant original. With regard to successful role-playing, I say “almost” because while Sally Dibblee, a soprano of prodigal gifts who impressed me mightily as Queen Elizabeth in the company’s 2012 production of Maria Stuarda, sang no less well this time around, she just wasn’t Lady Billows. To imagine an apt representation of that personage, you must perhaps think Maggie Smith—and Ms. Dibblee was simply too young, and too attractive, and had too much fun to be convincing as the heavy-handed proponent of strictly old-fashioned morality. I thought it also Ms. Leyshon’s only mistake to have Lady Billows, in her very first appearance at the opera’s beginning, carried back and forth in a pose of caricatured rigidity; the idea was good for an easy laugh, but it threatened to suggest cartoon rather than comedy of manners. It’s revealing, by the way, of the mores of the period of the story that the concept of immorality harbored by Lady Billows and her saturnine housekeeper, Florence Pike—sung and played with fearsome intensity by the excellent Susan Platts—and accepted by most of the other characters concerns itself exclusively with sexual indulgence, and has nothing to do with people’s treatment of each other in non-sexual contexts.

The one person in the drama who seems fully emancipated from this puritanical mind-set is Sid, the butcher. Baritone Phillip Addis made him a convincingly attractive figure, whose girl-friend, Nancy, was also played and sung with touching humanity by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Marshall. The village worthies—school teacher, vicar, mayor, and police superintendent—were in the capable hands of Charlotte Corwin, Peter McGillivray, Michael Colvin, and Giles Tomkins, and mezzo-soprano Rebecca Hass, as Mrs. Herring, was by turns suitably proper and suitably lachrymose. But the star of the show, aptly enough, was Lawrence Wiliford. As the much-put-upon but eventually liberated Albert, he deployed a tenor voice of a rare silky lightness, and his acting was precisely, intelligently, and movingly to the point.

The other program I was able to attend prefaced two of Britten’s works for young people with his Suite for Harp. It was played with impressive subtlety and control by Annabelle Vitek, but the sound of her instrument was not well treated by the acoustics of the venue, and in any case the work, pleasant enough in its introverted way, seemed out of place next to the often rollicking effects of The Golden Vanity and Noye’s Fludde.

Delightful performances of these two brilliant works showcased the inestimable value of community involvement. Simple but effective sets, as well as a large variety of masks, were all designed by the children involved. The audience, which amply filled the spacious church, also participated by singing the three hymns that Britten included in Noye’s Fludde, including the thrilling Eternal Father, strong to save, composed by the wonderfully named 19th-century clergyman John Bacchus Dykes. (I hope it’s not inappropriate for me to be reviewing this performance, in view of the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed myself by joining in the congregational singing.)

In the main roles, Peter McGillivray was even more impressive as Noye than he had been the evening before as Vicar Gedge, and Rebecca Hass also returned from the Herring cast as the shrewish Mrs. Noye. Their three children, along with their respective wives, were all a fine upstanding crew; Mrs. Noye’s gossips were equally good, and surprisingly good to look at; and John Krich delivered the Voice of God from on high with a fair degree of authority, though this spoken part comes nowhere near the imaginative power exerted by Stravinsky’s assignment of the divine role to two bass voices singing together in his own version of the story, The Flood. As the two birds Noye sends out to scope out dry land, dancers Vicka Pluzhnikova, the Dove, and especially Emma Gillespie, the Raven, were superbly lissome and graceful

The Golden Vanity, a piece I know less well, also made a big impression, with enthusiastic contributions by the children playing the crews of the two ships in the sad story. As the cabin boy who comes to so undeservedly sorry an end, Khalil Tuff revealed a dramatic talent far out of proportion to his youth and small stature. And Timothy Vernon conducted both works with all his familiar skill and zest.

I am sure there must be Britten festivities of higher prestige planned around the world this year, but I doubt whether many or even any of them are likely to match the sheer enjoyment offered by all these dedicated Victorians.

Bernard Jacobson