When veterans such as Steuart Bedford and John Copley (both associates of Benjamin Britten) are in the driving seat for Albert Herring you know you’re in for a treat. This new staging at The Grange Festival, under its artistic director Michael Chance, scores a bull’s-eye; it’s a triumph of casting and with superb singing and acting. What a joy too that Copley’s direction has such a light touch – everything perfectly comes together in this gem of a production.
Copley updates Eric Crozier’s comedy of manners from 1900 to post-War Britain – adding a tug-of-war contest following Albert’s May Day feast (with oodles of jelly and blancmange), a collapsible marquee and a randy Vicar whose advances towards Miss Wordsworth are twice frustrated. Tim Reed’s sets provide plenty of realism as well as practicality and, in the weather-boarding of the greengrocers, a sense of location. Such a bygone yet familiar ambience is aided by Prue Handley’s seasonal costumes, with Suffolk’s immense skies and reed marshes evocatively lit by Kevin Treacy; Aldeburgh felt tantalisingly near.
That Britten loved Suffolk is clear from the characters for whom he provides music of astonishing brilliance and wit – the opening "busybody" motif a case in point. In search of a new and unblemished May Queen the local committee in the not-so-imaginary Loxford is headed by the imperishable Lady Billows who suffers from chronic morality. Portraying this pillar of society an imposing Orla Boylan combines Brünnhilde with Hyacinth Bucket, fearlessly dismissing the local girls as “trollops” and the local militia as “bumpkins”. She is not just a force to be reckoned with, for in the lament for Albert (an inspired passage in Act Two) warmer tones suggest a more motherly persona.
Fully formed characterisations also come from Alexander Robin-Baker whose melting baritone in praise of virtue suggested Mr Gedge’s essential goodness. Anna Gillingham as Miss Wordsworth is delightfully precious and radiant in tone (reminiscent of Joyce Grenfell) when rehearsing the children for Albert’s crowning ceremony. Adrian Thompson makes a compelling Mayor, while Andri Björn Róbertsson’s Superintendent Budd (who prefers “a decent murder with a corpse”) is also well-drawn.
Kitty Whately as a sweet-natured Nancy and Timothy Nelson as a mischievous Sid form a fine partnership, their walking-bass duet neatly differentiating the lives of two young people, and Clarissa Meek (Miss Pike) and Katherine Wilkinson (Mrs Herring) also bring their characters to life. Above all, it is Richard Pinkstone as an outstanding and cherubic Albert; his comic timing, clear diction and full-throated singing fully engage, indicating early on that Albert is neither “plaster saint” nor “simpleton”. Particularly impressive was his self-pitying aria, sung with heartfelt emotion – with his trousers around his ankles.
There is also ensemble singing of rare distinction, the Act One fugue – a potential graveyard – is as fine a display of choral discipline as you can find in any opera house. Equally accomplished is the contribution from the thirteen-piece Aurora Orchestra; the numerous solos are exquisitely rendered thanks to Steuart Bedford’s insightful conducting and perfect pacing.
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