Royal Academy Opera – Albert Herring

Albert Herring – Opera in three acts to a libretto by Eric Crozier after a short story by Guy de Maupassant

Lady Billows – Eimear Collins
Florence Pike – Kate Symonds-Joy
Miss Wordsworth – Runette Botha
Mr Gedge, the Vicar – Oliver Dunn
Mr Upfold, the Mayor – Eliot Alderman
Superintendent Budd – Frederick Long
Sid – Marcus Farnsworth
Albert Herring – Andrew Dickinson
Nancy – Laura Kelly
Mrs Herring – Irina Gheorghiu
Emmie – Mary Bevan
Cis – Tess Bevan
Harry – Joseph Beesley

Royal Academy of Music Sinfonia
Nicholas Kok

John Copley – Director
Tim Reed – Designer
Prue Handley – Costume designer
Jake Wiltshire – Lighting designer

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 10 March, 2010
Venue: Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, Royal Academy of Music, London

John Copley moves the setting for his staging of Britten’s “Albert Herring” from 1900 to the 1920s. It made sense of the proliferation of single women – young men and husbands had been killed in the war – and Albert and Sid would have been too young to enlist. Correspondingly, the Vicar, the Mayor and the Police Superintendent should have looked at least ten years older, and Lady Billows, in this context, should really have been more Victorian in appearance. As it was, she looked just about capable of a stately Charleston.

To cast Florence Pike as a maid, complete with frilly cap and pinafore, is quite wrong. She may have been Lady Billows’s dog’s-body, but as a companion/housekeeper she would have had some sort of social standing in Loxford that a maid never would have had. England was awash with middle-class women in straitened circumstances, for whom life’s prospects were pretty hopeless, who would have been mortified to be thought of as servants – indeed the Florence Pikes of that world would very likely have taken out their disappointments on lowly maids. Both Benjamin Britten and Eric Crozier were very precise about the types of society in “Albert Herring“. Miss Wordsworth and Mrs Herring were more accurately presented, and, casting-wise, Albert, Sid and Nancy were spot-on.

Designer Tim Reed’s main set, the interior of the Herring greengrocer’s shop, which rotated to present the shop-front, looked authentic and worked very well for the overhearing of what shouldn’t be overheard and for isolating a mummy’s boy in a bubble of duty and frustration. I can understand why a college production wouldn’t want to throw a lot of cash at a set that is only used for one scene, but, even so, the hall of the Billows mansion was pretty drab.

A very minor problem I have with “Albert Herring” is that the bulk of Crozier’s libretto flows so naturally and is so well suited to the music, that the occasional dips into poetic profundities strike rather a false note. In this case, about fifty per cent of this particular problem disappeared because words, especially from the women (excepting Miss Wordsworth) went for nothing – which is odd in a small theatre with a dry-as-dust acoustic, and lined with fabric for extra less resonance.

Lady Billows, Florence, the Vicar, the Mayor and the police superintendent played up the parody of their roles for all they were worth. Einear Collins (Lady Billows) caught most of the authority and affronted dignity of a role that still, after 60 years, belongs to Joan Cross just as another Lady B, Bracknell, belongs to Edith Evans. Einear Collins has a powerful voice, although it got lost lower down, and the way she snatched at top notes, while dramatically viable, wasn’t always attractive – and words, or lack of them, was a problem. Florence was directed as a grotesque, and Kate Symonds-Joy went for the am-dram face-pulling and grimacing with a will. Apart from that, she had a tight, bright voice and confident stage presence. The three men, Oliver Dunn, Eliot Alderman and Frederick Long, each made the most of their sharply characterised roles, and Oliver Dunn (Vicar) made a good job of his shy romance with Miss Wordsworth. The latter was very attractively played and sung by Runette Botha, who made her much more sympathetic and less twittering than usual.

Another, slightly bigger, problem with the opera is Mrs Herring, a role I think is underwritten, almost perfunctory. Heresy, I suppose, but she is supposed to be the reason why Albert is as he is. Irina Gheorghiu made a convincing, downtrodden war widow, but surely she would never have taken a stick to her grown-up son, however in thrall to apron-strings. Again, Crozier and Britten had a very clear idea of the type of humour they were after, and this sort of slapstick seemed a miscalculation.

Obviously, “Albert Herring” stands or falls with Albert, Sid and Nancy, and Andrew Dickinson, Marcus Farnsworth and Laura Kelly were terrific – touching, romantic and completely believable. Laura Kelly, perhaps a wee bit too Scottish for Suffolk and better in ensemble than on her own, sang warmly and openly (and you could hear all her words), and was charmingly sexy in her dalliances with Sid. Marcus Farnsworth didn’t by any means steal the show, but his big, generous and powerfully sung performance made it quite clear what Albert was missing, and he did it in great style.

With Albert, the audience is always waiting to see how he grasps his change of direction, and Andrew Dickinson did not disappoint in his portrayal of growing up. He has a light, natural tenor – I wonder how he’d manage in somewhere bigger and more resonant venues – and he uses it very expressively. He looks a bit like Eric Idle, which encouraged all sorts of audience sympathies, and his narration of what he got up to in the fleshpots of east Suffolk was touching and sweet – and his “That’ll do, mum” was, in its way, heroic.

The 12-strong RAM Sinfonia played very well for Nicholas Kok, especially in Act Three, where the players sounded much more open and relaxed. Kok got them to produce a rather wiry sound, which suited this surprisingly modern score very well.The overdone parody in the production meant that the melancholy in this opera was rather buried, but the strong trio of principals did their best to redress the balance.

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