mon 20/05/2024

Albert Herring, Opera North | reviews, news & interviews

Albert Herring, Opera North

Albert Herring, Opera North

Britten in the round is a comic treat fit for a May Fair

Doofus with domineering mother: Alexander Sprague and Dame Josephine BarstowRobert Workman

Staging Britten’s third opera in the round in a small performance space of the Howard Assembly Room makes complete sense. Albert Herring’s supporting cast of village grotesques are that little bit more oppressive when they’re singing yards away from your face. The effect is nicely claustrophobic too – after this, you somehow can’t imagine seeing this opera in a conventionally-sized opera house.

And it means the audience get close to the great Dame Josephine Barstow, who as Lady Billows will be a draw for many. She’s still marvellous – you fear early on that her larger-than-life theatrics will cast a shadow over a hard-working supporting cast, but she wisely keeps things just enough in check.

Britten’s librettist Eric Crozier transposed a Maupassant short story to rural Suffolk in the late 1940s. The plot revolves around the villagers’ inability to find a suitably virginal May Queen. Desperate, they choose a shy, mumbling doofus – Albert, who runs the greengrocer's with his mother, who dominates not only him but the rest of the village too. Crowned at the May Fair, Albert unwittingly drinks the rum used to lace his lemonade and plucks up the courage to live life a little more adventurously. Ostensibly a comic opera, it's perhaps never quite as funny as you’d hope, though the compact chamber orchestra provide a consistently witty commentary. Justin Doyle’s sharp conducting is alert to every glint and kink in Britten’s score.

Parallels with Peter Grimes are inescapable – we’ve an ungainly outsider who’s struggling to fit in, eventually hounded by a tight-knit bunch of locals. Loxford’s villagers, apparently comic and harmless, can shift to menace in the blink of an eye in director Giles Havergal’s hands – notably when they’re screaming like a lynch mob at Albert to give a grateful speech when he’s just been crowned. Any sane person would flee in terror.

Alexander Sprague makes his Opera North debut in the title role. It’s rare to find singers who are so deft physically. You’re desperate to run on and rescue him as he cowers and trembles on the dais before his coronation speech, before he transforms into swaggering insouciance as he returns, bruised and black-eyed after his drunken night out. He can also sing – the extended soliloquy in Act Two is totally confident but never too comfortable: wondrous stuff.

In a score dominated by staccato outbursts, Marc Callaghan and Katie Bray stand out as Sid and Nancy, their rapturous music highlighting Britten’s gifts as a melodist. Darker pleasures come from observing the other locals - Graeme Danby’s policeman exudes slow-moving, witless heaviness, and William Dazeley’s oleaginous vicar is a treat. Fiona Kimm as Mrs Herring works hard to prevent her role descending into crude caricature. Leslie Traver’s ingenious set and costume designs are simple but delightful, the sudden appearance of real fruit and veg from a series of packing crates prompting giggles and oohs of delight among audience members. The children are excellent. It’s a treat, in other words – you can’t imagine this piece being better performed.

You’re desperate to run on and rescue Sprague's Albert as he cowers and trembles on the dais before his coronation speech


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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