United Kingdom Benjamin Britten, Albert Herring, Op. 39: Soloists, RWCMD Chamber Ensemble / David Jones (conductor), Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 1.4.2015 (LJ).
Lady Billows – Chanae Curtis
Florence Pike – Dawn Burns
Miss Wordsworth – Letitia Perry
Mr Gedge, the Vicar – Adam Jondelius
Mr Upfold, the Mayor – Tom Smith
Superintendent Budd – Kaidi Shen
Sid – Emyr Wyn Jones
Albert Herring – Andrew Henley
Nancy – Olivia Jane Gomez
Mrs Herring – Louisa Grace Cheshire
Emmie – Ellen Williams
Cis – Grace Bermingham
Harry – Tara McSwiney
Cover Superintendent Budd – Rhys Alun Thomas
Director – Martin Constantine
Conductor – David Jones
Set and Costume Designer – Gabriella Slade
Lighting Designer – Hristo Takov
Stage Manager – katie Newton
Technician – Kay Rumnikkiumar
Two years after his unsettling tragedy Peter Grimes, Benjamin Britten premiered his comic opera Albert Herring at Glyndebourne. On this June night in 1947 the audience laughed and jeered over the Suffolk rendition of Dylan Thomas’ South Wales infused Under Milkwood. With its reflections on the idiosyncrasies of English village life, scenes of comic farce and indulgences in moral impropriety, like Thomas’ later radio-play, Britten’s opera Albert Herring is tinged with a more serious note. At its core, Britten’s opera is boldly exploring the youthful urge to break free, experiment and rebel against social norms and the stifling restrictions of propriety and expectation. Based on Maupassant’s short story Le Rosier de Madame Husson, librettist Eric Crozier and Benjamin Britten created an opera exploring not the usual themes of marriage or death but the dilemma of choosing a May Queen when all of the young girls in the village (or “country virgins”) have been sullied! Selected to be the town’s first ‘May King’ the meek and mild Albert dreams of rebellion and envies the frivolity enjoyed by his friend Sid with the flirtatious Nancy. Charting a mollycoddled boy’s fall/awakening into adulthood, Albert Herring dramatizes the painful and comic experiences that transpire on this journey.
Initial opinions about Albert Herring were divided; whilst the owner and founder of Glyndebourne, John Christie, disliked the opera and apparently greeted members of the first night audience saying ‘This isn’t our kind of thing, you know’, Sviatoslav Richter called it “the greatest comic opera of the century”. Nowadays Albert Herring is one of the most loved and treasured comic-operas, and was made into a film in 1985 starring John Graham-Hall and Patricia Johnson as Albert and Lady Billows.
Though he had left Suffolk to live in America five years before the premiere of this opera, Paul Kildea (Britten’s most recent biographer) has suggested that Britten was “dealing with the suffocating awfulness of the British class system” when he began writing Albert Herring. In Loxford (the fictional Suffolk town where Albert works in his mother’s shop), Britten exposes precisely these tensions and anxieties. With Lady Billows as the Thatcherite aristocrat who stridently enforces her suffocating conservative ideals, Loxford is a place where everyone must toe the line. Depicting this Big-Brother watchfulness with their ghostly presence, the stagehands stalked the stage with laboured robotic rigidity when they rearranged the sets. Dressed all in black, wearing binoculars around their necks, glasses and their hair/wigs tied in severe buns (including the men) the ‘neighbourhood-watch’ theme running through the play took a sinister turn. Set and costume designer Gabriella Slade added a gigantic pair of glasses that hovered above the set. These glasses were lit for the final scene which exaggerated the pressure-cooker feeling of small-town busy-bodies, turning innocent nosiness into covert surveillance. The significance of these glasses breaking when Albert throws his May Queen flower hat through them gave a revolutionary air to his drunken escapades, and was a well thought out idea by the director Martin Constantine.
Perhaps the pace of the opera could have been a little faster to translate the quick wit in a more effective manner. However, all puns and quips seemed to be well received. The scene where Sid spikes Albert’s lemonade with rum (played by Emyr Wyn Jones, the RWCMD’s very own “best English beef”, and Olivia Jane Gomez as Sid and Nancy) was delivered beautifully, with Gomez singing:
Giving Albert rum to drink?
We did it for fun
Oh we shouldn’t have done! (Nancy in Act III)
Conductor David Jones ensured that Britten’s fresh inventiveness was conveyed, and illustrated Britten’s metaphor that Lady Billows and her followers (most noticeably Florence Pike) were in control of the orchestra, singing with precision over baroque pastiche which gave way to bulging fugues. This was juxtaposed with Sid and Nancy, where the music was lyrical and soaring as it danced in rhapsodic fragments between Albert’s serious and sentimental songs. Mezzo Dawn Burns as Florence Pike had a beautiful mellowness to her voice and her stillness contrasted well with Chanae Curtis’(Lady Billows) impressive fortissimo and sassy antics.
Singing the children’s ball game “Bounce me high, bounce me low, bounce me up to Jericho! / Bounce me slow, bounce me quick, and bounce me to arithmetick!” Ellen Williams, Grace Bermingham and Tara McSwiney as Emmie, Cis and Harry were hilarious. McSwiney’s comic timing was perfect; her simultaneously gentle and obvious humour would have fitted in well with a Morecambe and Wise skit. What Kaidi Shen lacked in clarity, he made up for in subtle humour as the ponderous Superintendent Budd. Lastly, dressed in a virginal white knitted jumper and flowered hat, Andrew Henley as Albert was convincing in his appearance alone. Though having his trousers and pants pulled down to be smacked on the bottom by Mrs Herring (played charmingly by Louisa Grace Cheshire whose stern motherly disapproval was terrifyingly real), which flustered a few audience members, the slapstick humour was generally well received! Henley sang well and was a convincing shy introvert who was ready to break out of his mummy-shaped mould. Overall, the solosts from th Royal Welsh College Soloists and its Chamber Ensemble were a success and conveyed the spirit of Britten’s opera with serious conviction and a great deal of humour.