Claiming some affinity with Brittens beloved Suffolk, in that he too is east-coast born, albeit a couple of hundred miles further north, Sir Thomas Allen has pulled out of the hat a richly characterised account of Brittens home-grown comedy of an innocent lad finding a way (with a little clandestine help from his friends) to break away from the claustrophobic expectations of his mother and the community as a whole. The inference is you have to break out to find who you really are.
The context is the inability of the committee made up of the local great and good (mayor, schoolmistress, vicar and police superintendent, who meet at the home of Lady Billows) to find a girl suitable for May Queen (the Ladys assistant Miss Pike has a notebook damning every suggestion with some prudish impropriety), so they come to the radical conclusion of choosing a May King instead. Likeable Albert Herring is the unanimous choice good boy looking after his mothers greengrocers shop and very dutiful.
The day comes and Alberts friends Sid and Nancy splice his lemonade with rum; hiccoughs get the better of him as he attempts a thank-you speech and he disappears off into the Suffolk night.General pandemonium ensues with fears of his death and frantic searches of the marshes to see if hes drowned. Amidst this collective mourning and wailing, Albert enters a little the worse for wear after a night on the town. His mother and the do-gooding May Day committee turn on him. Sid and Nancy spit out their contempt for the elders hypocrisy. Albert explains he went drinking (and perhaps whoring) and spent three of the 25 guineas he received as prize money.You hope, and pray, he has at least started down the road to become his own man, rather than the mothers-boy he had previously been.
Fronted by an old sepia-style photograph of a bustling Suffolk seaside scene (surrounded by prawns), the curtain rises to reveal a set delineated by Victorian-style metal vaulting, with a further photograph used as a backdrop. Roger Butlins designs evoke realistic settings in the simplest of styles, whether Lady Billowss house or Herrings shop.Allen has populated these effective designs with real people; rounded characters who can also sing. The programmes photographs suggest that rehearsals were fun and all the players were confident in their characterisations. When my only possible criticism is that Sion Goronwys dark-grey bushy eyebrows for Budd looked unreal against his jet-black hair, you may rightly complain that I am splitting hairs!
Claire Surman swaggered splendidly as Lady Billows, with her youthful voice able to do justice to Brittens tricky vocal line, even if the general haughtiness of age was harder for her to bring off.Miriam Ryens primping, nervous Miss Wordsworth, the school teacher, was also a treat, while Andrew Kennedys mayor, Mr Upfold, was full of rough bluster and Shannon Chad Foleys Mr Gedge was more than just the stereotypically simpering vicar.
Livelier still as their parts allow were Jared Holts sprightly Sid and his girlfriend, the rather sophisticated Elizabeth Ife. Topping them all was Robert Murrays Albert beautifully judged as the put-upon grocer boy, doing his best to keep to his mothers doctrine, but straining for his own life and taking the opportunity (albeit under the influence of the wicked alcohol) to break free from maternal apron strings. There were nice cameos as the children by Helen Massey, Simona Mihai and from the Centre for Young Musicians Jeremy Solly.
The highest of praise too for the musicians, conducted with verve by Michael Rosewell, every bit as responsive to Brittens masterly score as their fellow musicians at Opera North or Glyndebourne. All in all, this is the best student production I have ever seen of an opera. Praise to Sir Thomas Allen who puts his artistic credentials where his mouth is (following his Royal Philharmonic Society address against the pervasive nature of dumbing-down in May). Perhaps Sir Tom can be persuaded back for some Mozart? Canny lad that he is, he has fleshed out Brittens roles to make a believable community; the only regret there was only four performances. This is a production that is eminently worthy of a revival and longer run.
- This performance of the 6th was preceded by ones on 30 November and 2 & 4 December
- Royal College of Music