Britten’s Albert Herring [Guildhall School of Music & Drama]

Britten
Albert Herring – Opera in three acts to a libretto by Eric Crozier based on Guy de Maupassant’s story Le Rosier de Madame Husson

Lady Billows – Lucinda-Mirikata Deacon
Florence Pike – Amy J. Payne
Miss Wordsworth – Eva Gaizate
Mr Gedge – Gary Griffiths
Mr Upfold – Leonel Pinheiro
Superintendent Budd – Matthew Stiff
Sid – Matthew Sprange
Albert Herring – Thomas Herford
Nancy – Máire Flavin
Mrs Herring – Sylvie Bedouelle
Emmie – Sophie Junker
Cis – Lucy Hall
Harry – Ciara O’Connor

Orchestra
Clive Timms

William Kerley – Director
Johanna Town – Lighting
Tom Rogers – Designer


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 9 June, 2010
Venue: Silk Street Theatre, Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London

The third conservatoire production this year of Britten’s third opera, “Albert Herring”, the Guildhall School’s following John Copley’s traditional production for the Royal Academy of Music and one by Trinity College. However, William Kerley’s staging offered a fresh take on the Suffolk tale (transplanted from Guy de Maupassant’s French setting by librettist Eric Crozier), by updating it to the late-20th-century.

Portraits of Queen Elizabeth II began and ended the production – to start, the classic 1970s’ photograph, framed alongside hunting-scenes on the blue wood-panelled walls of Lady Billows’s stately pile, and, to end – well, let’s come to that.

Amy J. Payne’s twin-set Florence Pike ushers in Loxford’s great and good – teacher Miss Wordsworth, vicar Mr Gedge, mayor (and butcher) Mr Upfold and Superintendent Budd. They’re here to choose the May Queen, but under Lady Billows’s strictures all the village’s possible girls have indictments against them, mostly catalogued in Pike’s notebook. What to do? What about a May King instead of a May Queen – and what about that nice, well-brought-up boy Albert Herring?

Kerley heightens the establishment stereotypes by showing how they work even in an updated setting: self-appointed do-gooders are the same in any time period, headed by Lucinda-Mirikata Deacon’s Mary Whitehouse-esque Lady Billows. I first thought we were in the 1960s, a point of view initially confirmed by the unveiling of Mrs Herring’s shop with its neatly packed shelves of Persil and Omo packets, Fairy Liquid washing-up-liquid bottles, red Oxo cube and Angel Delight packets; though there also seemed to be some Pot Noodles in a pyramid which would have to be 1980s.

Sid (Matthew Sprange) enters in a butcher’s white-coat and we first see Thomas Herford’s Albert properly (having only had a glimpse when one of Lady Billows’s pictures reveals him at the end of the first scene), shy and reserved with his lank hair and brown grocer’s overall. In-march the do-gooders to announce their largesse (£30 no less – £25 at Lady Billows’s behest, £5 in a bank account presented by the mayor) and the scene is set for Albert’s unwitting change from boy to man.

At the start of the second Act, Sid and Nancy show their true colours. I can’t have been the first to muse on the coincidence between Britten’s operatic Sid and Nancy’s names and those of Punk Rock’s ‘first couple’, Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, but as far as I know Kerley is the first to equate the two in a production. Preparing for the May King repast, Sid cycles-in with the meat dressed in Doc Marten boots and leather jacket with The Ramones emblazoned on the back and Nancy appears in tartan bondage trousers.

This nicely heightens the division between generations and perhaps aids context to Sid’s scurrilous lacing of Albert’s lemonade with rum which fuels the rest of the plot. There was also some nicely detailed observations, such as Matthew Stiff’s Superintendent Budd sneaking a cigarette with Sid on the bench outside the marquee, let alone Mr Gedge’s billing and cooing around Miss Wordsworth, which raised much merriment amongst certain sections of the audience (a danger in any educational establishment performance as friends of the cast share an in-joke).

The rum in Albert’s lemonade loosens his tongue as much as his mother’s apron strings and, with £30 in his pocket, he heads off into the night for some living! Act Three sees the shell-shocked community, for once all agreed, fearing the worst and waiting for news. Britten builds up to a heartfelt nonet, into which a made-over Albert bursts in, with his punked-up hair, long leather jacket emblazoned with “God Save the May King”, DMs and an electric guitar.

The community turn its nonet of woe into anger (Britten returning to the force of the Borough’s cries of “Peter Grimes”), but Albert has sampled enough of real life to be able to brush their small-minded views aside. He struts up the stairs above the shop as the final image of Queen Elizabeth is lowered, this time with a distinctive gash taking out her eyes – as on the Sex Pistol’s single “God Save the Queen” – through which Albert stands in defiant Johnny Rotten pose.

Amidst this well-conceived production, wonderfully designed by Tom Roger, there was much to enjoy in the performances, especially in following singers through from previous Guildhall School productions; indeed five had been in Massenet’s “Chérubin”. Thomas Herford’s Albert revelled in his new-found lifestyle after his shuffling shyness and both Máire Flavin and Matthew Sprange confirmed their versatility in livewires Nancy and Sid, compared to their roles of Chérubin and The Baron last time. Sylvie Bedouelle proved that Mrs Herring, although of lower class, was just as stuck in her ways as Lady Billows, who perhaps could have been a touch more haughty in Lucinda-Mirikata Deacon’s portrayal. Overall there was a slight tendency for diction to fail in what is a detailed libretto. In the pit Clive Timms had an excellent band of thirteen musicians, only very occasionally sounding thin in the upper register of the strings.

Confirming the Guildhall School’s continuing high standards of its opera department, “Albert Herring” is definitely worth a look.



  • Further performances at 7 p.m. of this double-cast production on 11, 14 & 16 June
  • Guildhall School
  • Barbican
  • Guildhall School dates for your diary: 4, 6, 8 & 10 November 2010 – Spinalba (Francisco António de Almeida); 3, 5, 7 & 9 March 2011 – Dialogues des Carmélites (Poulenc); 9, 11, 13 & 15 June 2011 – Rita (Donizetti) & Iolanta (Tchaikovsky)

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