Albert Herring comes home

English Touring Opera performs Benjamin Britten's opera on the composer's home turf

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Albert HerringPhotos: Richard Hubert Smith

Britten’s Albert Herring is often cited as his sole comic opera (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, anyone?) – and divides opinion like Marmite. To the charge made by some detractors that it is hopelessly provincial, there is the counter-evidence of a live recording made in Copenhagen during a 1940s tour by Britten’s English Opera Group (available on Nimbus), where the audience’s delighted laughter makes quite clear that the humour exports well. The pianist Sviatoslav Richter also thought it ‘the greatest comic opera of the century’. Yet there is no doubt that the opera, rich with references to Suffolk landmarks and institutions such as Aldeburgh’s Jubilee Hall and the Saxmundham police receives a special appreciation in Britten’s home territory. This was fully evident when English Touring Opera brought its superb new production to the Snape Maltings – where else would one get an appreciative ripple of titters at the reference to Campsey Ash?

The production set had two constant elements. First, there was a cage-like structure of wooden bars which defined the back and sides of the main stage, both serving as a frame on which various scene-defining props, such as boxes of vegetables for the shop, were hung, while also suggesting the restricting social order within which Albert feels trapped. More subtly, there was the ever-present clock, a cue brilliantly picked up from Eric Crozier’s libretto in which time is a constant preoccupation, whether with Lady Billows and her assistant Florence Pike’s obsession with punctuality, or with the young lovers Sid and Nancy’s awareness of time’s fleeting quality: ‘Time is a glutton, Time is a thief, Youth must challenge him as he flies’. All this converges on Albert’s realisation that time, and his life, won’t stand still and wait until he’s ready to assert his own independence – most obviously from his domineering mother, but also from the expectations of the village worthies who ‘reward’ his dutiful and inhibited virginity by crowning him King of the May.

Albert HerringIt is rare to see a production so sensitive both to an opera’s libretto as well as its musical substance. Tenor Mark Wilde conveyed Albert’s bemused, befuddled and often horribly frustrated character, both cringing yet bursting with unfulfilled desires and wishes as he witnesses the love-making of Sid and Nancy, and believably defiant and self-confident when he finally says ‘boo’ to the village worthies, as if they were Alice’s ‘pack of cards’ (if only life was always that simple!). There were also some brilliant original touches, such as making Florence Pike a butch virago – brilliantly realised by Rosie Aldridge – rather than the usual flustered spinster, who passed orders from ‘her Ladyship’ down to a down-trodden maid servant.

In fact there was hardly a weak link in this very strong ensemble cast. If Jennifer Rhys-Davies seemed a little too soft-voiced to be a fully believable Lady Bracknell-style monster, this is a fault shared by the role’s creator, Joan Cross, and both singers made up for this with unflinching characterisation. Altogether, this was a splendid production which did full justice to the emotional poignancies and beauties of the opera as well as its comic qualities.

English Touring Opera performs Albert Herring at Buxton Opera House, 16 November at 7.30pm