Britten’s Albert Herring at the Royal Academy of Music

Albert Herring – chamber opera in three acts.

Libretto by Eric Crozier based on the short story ‘Le Rosier de Madame Husson’ by Guy de Maupassant

Lady Billows – Madison Horman
Florence Pike – Angharad Rowlands
Miss Wordsworth – Ellen Mawhinney
Mr Gedge, Vicar – Conrad Chatterton
Mr Upfold, Mayort – Samuel Stopford
Superintendent Budd – Duncan Stenhouse
Sid – Oleksandr Ilvakhin
Albert Herring – George Curnow
Nancy – Chloe Harris
Mrs Herring – Anna-Helena Maclachlan
Emmie – Binny Supin Yang
Cis – Caroline Blair
Harry – Olivia Singleton

Royal Academy Sinfonia
Geoffrey Paterson

Orpha Phelan – Director
Madeleine Boyd – Sets and costume designer
Matt Haskins– Lighting designer

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 12 March, 2024
Venue: Susie Sainsbury Theatre, Royal Academy of Music, London

With themes of social and sexual repression, entitled autocracy and self-discovery, Britten’s Albert Herring is catnip to opera directors, as ruling conservative values (boo) and progressive liberalism (hurrah) slug it out in the fictional town of Loxford in east Suffolk. Virgins are very much not two-a-penny when it comes to choosing the annual young May Queen, but there is that sweet-but-dim and pure Albert, the Herring lad whose mother owns the local greengrocers. So how about a May King? And there’s another thing – Britten’s music and Eric Crozier’s libretto need to be handled carefully if it’s not to sound all a bit too arch and brittle. Britten wrote it soon after the war for Glyndebourne in 1947 (where it did not go down a storm). He was 34 and relishing his brilliance and versatility as a composer – and with his clever ensembles and knowing winks to parody, you don’t half know it. 

Predictably, the opera has come in for its fair share of triumphs and indignities. Orpha Phelan’s new staging for the Royal Academy of Music is far from extreme, but her approach rather flattens the nuances that make this such an observant study of character, place and period. Phelan’s big idea is to have the town’s worthies, a gang of six – mayor, vicar, teacher, policeman, secretary, all led by the formidable Lady Billows – presented as a sort of Mad Hatter’s Tea-Party on a sugar-rush. Any contained community produces its own self-perpetuating elite, which Britten showed again and again that he completely understood, as his talent for satire, caricature and, crucially, affection constantly hits the mark. Here, though, dimension was limited as, for example, the shyly burgeoning attraction between Vicar Gedge and teacher Miss Wordsworth went for nothing, and Mrs Herring (Albert’s mother), an awkwardly underwritten role, is here almost superfluous.

The Alice-in-Wonderland element loomed large in Madeleine Boyd’s costumes – for some reason a bishop’s purple stock for the Vicar, a bizarre combo of eye-patch, a mass of medals and only one epaulette for the Mayor, a bright green siren-suit for Florence (Lady B’s dog’s-body), who also sports a mighty victory-roll hair-do, while Phelan’s direction was meticulously choreographed to maximise the surrealist exaggerations heaped on them and their wholesome, controlling post-war values. On the other hand, her take on Albert, Sid and Nancy would have been completely at home in an ultra-traditional, place-and-period-friendly staging, although Albert’s May King Turandot-ish costume was another head-scratching moment. Boyd’s sets were neatly geared to a run of four performances – a stylish French-style roof-terrace (a nod, perhaps, to the original Maupassant story), from which Lady Billows spies on the townsfolk, a leaning tower of packing cases for the Herring fruit-and-veg shop, and a jetty on which Albert, now initiated into the world’s temptations, at last assumes his much desired authority. The Act 2 interlude was the backing for Albert’s dream of playing s game of strip-poker with Lady Billows, the impact of which was lost on me.

With a cast and orchestra each thirteen-strong, the piece is ideal for a student staging, and the standard delivered by the Royal Academy of Music’s singers and instrumentalists was very high. I kept getting ghosts of Peter Pears in George Curnow’s accomplished Albert. Curnow’s voice is a bit more baritonal and natural, and his many moments of innocence, doubt, diffidence, and resolve were unforgettable – an exceptional performance that held the opera together. Just as strong and personable were Oleksandr Ilvakhin’s Sid, the slightly older and worldly mate whom Albert is desperate to emulate, and Chloe Harris’s curvaceous, seductively sung Nancy, Sid’s up-for-it squeeze and focus for Albert’s covert desires.

Madison Horman’s command as Lady Billows was unwavering, with generous singing and trenchant characterisation. Angharad Rowlands did wonders with her extraordinary, powerfully sung, misanthropic Florence Pike. Ellen Mawhinney delivered the tweedy, twin-setted Miss Wordsworth’s coloratura parody brilliantly, backed up by Conrad Chatterton’s stoutly sung Dad’s Army-ish Vicar. Samuel Stopford’s assured acting and eloquent tenor coped well with the eccentric Mayor, and Duncan Stenhouse clearly relished the send-up of the stalwart local plod, Superintendent Budd. Anna-Helena Maclachlan gave Mrs Herring heart and substance, and the gang-of-three children Emmie, Cis and Harry were suitably annoying and charming, as played by Binny Supin Yang, Caroline Blair and Olivia Singleton.

The conductor Geoffrey Paterson drew excellent playing from the Royal Academy Sinfonia, their sense of style effortlessly catching the idiom of Britten’s mid-20th-century voice, rather more European than English. I may have had misgivings about the staging but the level of preparation was such that you got to know this one-off work better. For which much thanks.

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