Albert Herring – Royal College of Music (6 December)

Albert Herring

Lady Billows – Claire Surman
Florence Pike – Wendy Dawn Thompson
Miss Wordsworth – Miriam Ryen
Mr Gedge – Shannon Chad Foley
Mr Upfold – Andrew Kennedy
Supt Budd – Sion Goronwy
Sid – Jared Holt
Albert Herring – Robert Murray
Nancy – Elizabeth Ife
Mrs Herring – Jennifer Johnston
Emmie – Helen Massey
Cis – Simona Mihai
Harry – Jeremy Solly

Sir Thomas Allen – director
Roger Butlin – designer

Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra
Michael Rosewell

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 6 December, 2002
Venue: Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London

Rarely equated to maxims pertaining to London omnibuses, opera this year has come up with an equivalent to the oft-quoted paradigm that you don’t see a bus for ages, and then three come at once. Thus, after a long absence from the operatic calendar, Albert Herring takes three stagings in 2002.First was the 1950s updating given by Opera North, in Phyllida Lloyd’s witty production, notable for the instrumental ensemble being on stage, and its heightening of hypocrisy within small communities. Then there was Glyndebourne’s revival, both in Sussex and on tour, of Sir Peter Hall’s sumptuous production. Now we have Sir Thomas Allen’s first foray into directing, at the college of which he is an alumni, and Prince Consort Professor of Singing – the Royal College of Music.

Claiming some affinity with Britten’s 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 Britten’s 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 Lady’s 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 mother’s greengrocer’s shop and very dutiful.

The day comes and Albert’s 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 he’s 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 Butlin’s designs evoke realistic settings in the simplest of styles, whether Lady Billows’s house or Herring’s shop.Allen has populated these effective designs with real people; rounded characters who can also sing. The programme’s photographs suggest that rehearsals were fun and all the players were confident in their characterisations. When my only possible criticism is that Sion Goronwy’s 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 Britten’s tricky vocal line, even if the general haughtiness of age was harder for her to bring off.Miriam Ryen’s primping, nervous Miss Wordsworth, the school teacher, was also a treat, while Andrew Kennedy’s mayor, Mr Upfold, was full of rough bluster and Shannon Chad Foley’s Mr Gedge was more than just the stereotypically simpering vicar.

Livelier still – as their parts allow – were Jared Holt’s sprightly Sid and his girlfriend, the rather sophisticated Elizabeth Ife. Topping them all was Robert Murray’s Albert – beautifully judged as the put-upon grocer boy, doing his best to keep to his mother’s 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 Britten’s 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 Britten’s 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.

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