United Kingdom Benjamin Britten, Albert Herring, Op. 39: Soloists and Orchestra of University of Birmingham / Jessica Norton (Music Director), Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, 12.6.2015 (GR).
Lady Billows, an elderly autocrat – Lydia Haynes
Florence Pike, her housekeeper – Lara Bienkowska
Miss Wordsworth, head teacher at village school – Holly Singlehurst
Mr Gedge, the Vicar – Bradley Gill
Mr Upfold, the Mayor – David Woods
Superintendent Budd, senior policeman – Peter Brooks
Sid, the butcher’s hand – Matthew Hayden
Albert Herring, from the family greengrocer’s – Geddy Stringer
Nancy, Sid’s girlfriend – Bryony Burnham
Mrs Herring, Albert’s mother – Hannah Tripp
Emmie, first village child – Elisabeth Munns
Cis, second village child – Abigail Fiddik
Harry, third village child – Victoria Huggett
Director – Matthew Knight
Stage Manager – Hanna Green, assisted by Lowri Evans & Abigail Askew
Costume Manager – Maysie Chandler
Lighting Design & Chief Electrician – Crispin Hodges
At its Glyndebourne premiere in 1947, founder John Christie infamously declared of Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring that ‘This isn’t our kind of thing, you know’. It took thirty-five years and Peter Hall’s iconic production of the comic opera about the ‘coming out’ of a greengrocer’s boy for attitudes at the home of the renowned Opera Festival in Sussex to change. Herring has always been my kind of thing, especially when served up in such a delightful and engaging package as that delivered on June 12th, the first night of the 2015 Summer Festival Opera from the University of Birmingham.
Half the success of this comic chamber opera is the way the Boosey & Hawkes score of Britten embellishes each of its larger-than-life characters; the ensemble of thirteen instrumentalists under conductor Jessica Norton achieved just that. They seemed equally at home accompanying recitative or aria, passacaglia or canon. The motifs also came across with evocative effect: the scalic phrase for Mrs Herring and the ‘love potion’ taken from Wagner’s Tristan, ingeniously inserted as Sid spikes Albert’s lemonade, to name but two.
The other half of Herring’s appeal is its libretto. Eric Crozier takes Guy de Maupassant’s short story Le Rosier de Madame Husson, relocating it to a quintessential English village named Loxford (believed to be Woodbridge in Suffolk). Parallels with Peter Grimes exist and although this community is less frenetic than the Borough, they remain hypocritical and capable of victimising the vulnerable: while trying to defend Albert in the final scene, Nancy and Sid observe With your pious old faces delighting in sin! Crozier’s anglicization of the story is assisted by references to several sources. Three instances include: Andrew Marvel – The grave’s a fine and private place, as Sid claims in the threnody; a second from this moving lament is taken from the Book of Common Prayer – In the midst of life…; and introducing her tribute to the May King in Albert’s coronation scene, Miss Wordsworth quotes her Lake Poet namesake with My heart leaps up. There is a serious side lurking behind the humour.
But director Matthew Knight’s emphasis was on the lighter side, filling his interpretation with minutiae that continually held an appreciative Barber audience, often with spontaneous laughter. Thought had been given to set design too and the early twentieth century parlour of Lady Billows was suitably decked for Act I Scene 1; fussed over by the feather duster of Florence (Lara Bienkowska) her hassle at being in service at the manor was explicitly uttered in her crescendo Sometimes I wish. As the May Day committee were ushered in for a meet to progress the plans for the customary annual celebrations, each member exhibited their own parodic trait with Britten’s imaginative recitative: with a hymn-like ring to his lines and looking as if he had just stepped down from the pulpit, Bradley Gill made a perfect Mr Gedge, the Vicar; as the village schoolmistress Holly Singlehurst was a prim and proper Miss Wordsworth, deferential and eager in such exalted company outside her cosy classroom; trying to look important as Mr Upfold the Mayor, David Woods succeeded in looking unworthy of his high office; with a mix of splutter and dependability, Peter Brooks as Superintendent Budd made a stereotypical Mister Plod. Their voices were finely balanced in the first quartet This is the tenth of April. As Lady Billows, Lydia Haynes made it clear that everything would be done as she decreed, this was after all her village, a veritable bossy boots. Their business concluded, the visitors got ready to leave; as Florence collected their apparel from the hat and coat stand, the prop crashed onto the stage, but such was the assurance of the cast it might even have been intentional.
With no curtain, the cast efficiently manoeuvred the sets and props to reveal Scene 2 – the modest emporium of ‘Herring and Son’. After the Bounce me high nursery-rhyme ditty from the three scrumpers, Emmie, Cis and Harry (childlike in action and voice, but somewhat oversize due no doubt to casting limitations) we got our first glimpse of Albert: Geddy Stringer was a fitting combination of innocence, gormlessness and affability, but clearly capable of running the family store. His Mummy’s boy image was all the more palpable against the brash and cocky Matthew Hayden in his butcher’s apron; Hayden illustrated his street-wise credentials with a worldly Tickling a trout, complete with surprising falsetto. The entrance of the delectable Bryony Burnham as Sid’s girlfriend began phase one of Albert’s ‘coming out’, jealous at seeing Nancy’s hand in Sid’s pocket. As the deputation arrived to announce that Albert was to be May King, the mayor performed his Sir Walter Raleigh bit with his jacket so Lady B’s feet were not soiled upon crossing the Herring working class threshold – nice touch. Less than enthusiastic at the news, Albert is left in no doubt that he will go along with it all by his domineering mother, the rolling pin wielding Hannah Tripp, Albert still not too old to be whacked on the thingmijig to the merriment of the watching children.
With this year’s May Queen of the male variety, it meant some last minute changes to the Loxford headline banner – ‘Queen’ being hastily over-pinned by ‘King’; the welcome was underlined by the horn of Beth Long as Act II began. Florence was still fussing around, seeing to it that the top table would be to her ladyship’s lofty standards, but now in her Sunday-best, a typical example of the immaculate detailed costumes of Maysie Chandler. Then as helper Nancy bent over, Sid enjoyed the view with his That’s a fine sight for sore eyes. The fun continued with Miss Wordsworth’s rehearsal of the children’s greeting Glory to the new May King, but with their eyes and tummies firmly centred on sausage rolls and trifle, their first effort was a discordant shamble. Despite distractions, such as Harry in his Lord Fauntleroy suit wanting the loo, Holly Singlehurst’s clear ringing soprano and her pitch pipe won the day from her makeshift podium to herald in the VIPs. With the students clearly enjoying themselves, their mood was infectiously transmitted to the audience.
The scored interlude as night falls featured some excellent playing from the wind section of the orchestra that led into the next scene. Returning from his corona…ti…um to a dark house, a tipsy Albert the Good searched for the Swan Vestas (the box of matches every late Victorian establishment should have) to light the gas. But the anticipated explosion was rather tame. As Sid and Nancy came within earshot for their moonlight love duet – some of Britten’s warmest and romantic music – one of Sid’s lines gives Albert his second ‘coming out’ phase: Heaven helps those who help themselves. It prompted his additional monologue and resolved, he set out to ‘help himself’.
The following afternoon (although the timing was somewhat puzzling with the full moon still visible) the whole village became concerned at Albert’s absence, feelings graphically expressed by Jessica Norton and her ensemble with Thomas McFarlane on clarinet and Dot Brodie on bassoon prominent. Nancy combined her guilt and anxiety superbly in her three stanza aria What would Mrs Herring say? Perhaps the most lyrical and sensuous music of the opera, it was eloquently aired by Bryony Burnham, with a sympathetic McFarlane again in support. A veiled Mrs Herring, all in black, played the grieving mother, but with the same motif as when she had admonished Albert for accompaniment, Britten was questioning its sincerity. When Albert’s head bouquet was found it was passed around the nine mourners during a poignant threnody. But of course Albert returns, from the left front auditorium, to a suspense-filled drum roll from Candy Bowtell; his reception (save for Nancy and Sid) was cool to say the least – that aforementioned village hypocrisy raising its ugly head. Albert kept the details of where his three sovereigns went to himself, but the third and final phase of his ‘coming out’ was confirmed. His reward was a kiss from Nancy and it was peaches all round for the children. Was Crozier leaving us with a final literary reference from T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock, Do I dare eat a peach?
A wonderful team effort from the talented University of Birmingham Music Department and a hugely entertaining evening.