United Kingdom Britten, Albert Herring: Soloists, Orchestra of Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama / David Jones (conductor). Dora Stoutzker Hall, RWCMD, Cardiff, 28.4.2019. (GPu)
Director – Martin Constantine
Set & Costume Designer – April Dalton
Lighting Designer – Jessica Pomeroy
Lady Billows – Freya Holliman
Florence Pike – Christine Byrne
Nancy – Tina Gelnere
Mrs Herring – Anna Pui-shan Chan
Miss Wordsworth – Rosie Rowell
Albert Herring – Osian Wyn Bowen
Mayor – Jack Parry
Superintendent Budd – William Stevens
Vicar – Jack Bowtell
Sid – Aaron Holmes
Emmie – Grace Curtis
Cis – Louise Geller
Harry – Aimée Daniel
This new encounter with Britten’s Albert Herring reminded me what a deliciously subversive piece it is. Its mockery of most of what is worst in British provincial life – e.g. the class system, puritanical hypocrisy, a fear of the transgressive assertion of individuality, naïve jingoism etc. – must have had real power when the opera was first performed in 1947 – throwing a punch at a deal of inappropriate pride in the ‘British character’. As such, it has had and continues to have a decided relevance; this relevance was certainly not neglected in this sharply intelligent production directed by Martin Constantine.
The opera’s relevance now was made most explicit at two points in the production. At the opening of Act II, the thoroughly unpleasant Florence Pike (the real ‘power’ behind Lady Billows in this production) inspected the preparations for the May banquet; spotting one European Union emblem amongst hundreds of union jacks, she tore it down and destroyed it, before ordering the hoisting of a chain of union jacks across the stage – which promptly collapsed before it could be fully raised! The very last stage image we were left with was of Lady Billows (with a determined expression) pointing upwards towards a huge union jack emblazoned with the slogan Take Back Control, familiar from its use by Vote Leave campaigners such as Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.
But I mustn’t give the impression that such matters were the only things prominent throughout the production. There was a good deal more generalised social satire, a relishing of Eric Crozier and Benjamin Britten’s mockery of pomposity and hypocrisy.
The set, designed by April Dalton, consisted of a number of large wooden packing cases (from which some of the characters emerged; the largest ones, when opened, became the drawing room of Lady Billows or Mrs. Herring’s grocery shop.
Amongst the performers, Osian Wyn Bowen (a final year undergraduate at RWCMD) was an effective Albert, coming into his own as a performer at much the same time as his character achieved his freedom. Anna Pui-shan Chan (a first-year student on the RWCMD’s Masters course in Opera Performance) gave us a fine account of Albert’s mother, initially an utterly limiting mother (smacking Albert across his bottom like a naughty child), money-grabbing (quite literally) in Act II and plausibly grief-stricken in Act III when believing that Albert was dead. The Florence Pike of Christine Byrne (studying for the Postgraduate Diploma Advanced |Professional Practice course) was as elegant as she was nasty, her sense of her own superiority evident in every movement and gesture. William Stevenson’s Superintendent Budd was a solidly comic figure and Jack Parry’s Mayor was absurd officiousness personified. As Lady Billows, Freya Holliman displayed a fine soprano voice, with a convincing air of authoritarian menace, while also presenting some convincing moments of affected benevolence. Latvian mezzo Tina Gelnere (currently studying at the David Seligman Opera School at RWCMD) was an attractive Nancy, singing with well-judged clarity and expressiveness. As Sid, Aaron Little brought to the role considerable vocal authority and an appropriate roughness of manner and character. Jack Bowtell’s Vicar was simultaneously pompous and unsure of himself, while Rosie Rowell’s Miss Wordsworth was wonderfully fussy (and splendidly hypocritical – in Act I, while singing of the importance of virtue and chastity her hand, in a nice detail, strayed to the Vicar’s thigh and stayed there). For the most part, of course, the figures in Albert Herring are nearer to being caricatures than characters – they are, that is to say, ‘simplifications’, devoid of real human complexity. The contradictions of real humanity are absent from both Crozier’s adroit libretto and Britten’s setting of it. The one partial exception is Albert himself, though one might argue that he only swaps one stereotype for another, as mother’s boy becomes lad about town. But at the level and manner of acting required in such a style (and its difficulty shouldn’t be underestimated) these student singers acquitted themselves well. Even beyond those named above, Miss Wordsworth’s three young ‘charges’ – Emmie, Cis and Harry – were embodied with lively mischief and mild rebelliousness by, respectively, Grace Curtis, Louise Geller and Aimée Daniel.
The student orchestra played with both vigour and precision, under the direction of David Jones who, as ever, brought to the task his excellent judgement and wealth of experience. The student musicians forming the orchestra for this production – some 13 strong – will surely have learned a great deal from working with such an experienced conductor (who, I have been told by students with relevant experience, is also very pleasant to work with).
The whole performance – dramatically, vocally and instrumentally – had both a vibrancy and a polish that one doesn’t necessarily expect from a student performance of opera and was thoroughly enjoyable. Much credit must, no doubt, go to David Jones and Martin Constantine (currently the Hodge International Chair in Directing at RWCMD. But, as I have observed above, the student cast made a strongly favourable impression. While one wouldn’t claim to have heard one of the great voices of the future (an ensemble opera like Albert Herring would, in any case, be unlikely to reveal such a voice), one left with the belief that if there is any justice, some in this cast will make professional careers for themselves. It is, in this context, relevant to note that, according to the programme, Freya Holliman, Christine Byrne, Tina Gelnere, William Stevenson and Anna Pui-shan Chan will all take roles in Welsh National Opera’s upcoming summer season. In fairness, I should note that a slightly different cast sang in some other performances of Albert Herring.