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Virginity Lost, Nostalgia Gained: Albert Herring

26 June 2017

Albert Herring

by Benjamin Britten, libretto Eric Crozier

Grange Festival at The Grange, Hampshire until 9th July

Review by Mark Aspen

Now here’s a world long past: everyone knows his place in society, strong moral anchors, deference to authority.  Whether you regard it with nostalgia or with abhorrence, this was the norm a century ago.  Or was it?   Albert Herring, Benjamin Britten’s parody of the provincial, its modes, manners and morality, is a gentle satire of those times.  Witty, but self-effacing, Britten’s mock-grandiose score and Crozier’s mock-simplistic libretto bounce off each other with great dexterity, high energy, and a huge sense of illicit fun.

Seventy years after its premiere at Glyndebourne, the Grange Festival has brought together a vibrant company, combining eminent experience with new talent, to create a wonderfully fresh and clever production.

Director John Copley has had a celebrated career extending more than half a century as an opera director, including at Covent Garden, and the value of that experience shows.  Copley has a subtle approach, playing it straight down the middle and letting the words and music speak for themselves.  It is the sub-caricature, tweaking the presentation to larger than life, that works so well, but then staying true the opera’s intentions.  The only real change is to set the opera in the 1920s instead of the original 1900.  (Although it could be argued that the momentous events of the Great War considerably changed social attitudes.)

The place setting is Loxford, an impression of a Suffolk town on the margins of East Anglia, Britten’s own beloved heartland.  The set, by internationally renowned designer, Tim Reed has a lovely muted mellowness, which include cherubic Poussin-esque cloudscapes.  The interiors are cleverly trucked to transform from Lady Billows’ reception rooms, to Mrs Herring’s greengrocer’s shop, to the rougher of the local pubs.  These are accurately period perfect, but what adds the poetry are the mats of bulrushes, which form an atmospheric background.  In scene changes the mats are floated to new positions by actresses with boathooks, a nice detail.  This is seen in silhouette against the evocatively lit cyclorama.  Kevin Treacy has also built an international career as a lighting designer and the ambience created by his lighting truly complements the score.   Night falls, the bassoon ushers in twilight, and the evening sky begins its transition through the spectrum: pure magic.  Prue Handley’s costume designs, true to the 1920’s, also mirror mood and action: Lady Billows wears regal colours, the mayor town-hall drab, the greengrocer, well, green; but when the worse is expected, all are funereal black.

Albert Herring - Benjamin Britten - The Grange Festival - 25 June 2017

Conductor - Steuart Bedford
Director - John Copley
Set Designer - Tim Reed
Costume Designer - Prue Handley
Lighting Designer - Kevin Treacy

Lady Billows - Orla Moylan
Florence Pike -

Loxford is a matriarchal society: all the older women are fearsome, and some of the younger ones too.   There is also a marked authoritarian hierarchy.  Lady Billows rules with a rod of iron (almost literally), more than ably assisted by her housekeeper and amanuensis, Miss Florence Pike, Lady B’s eyes and ears in every nook and cranny of the town.   The town’s worthies, the mayor, the vicar, the schoolmistress and the police superintendent, are summoned to the Hall.  The single agenda is to elect the town’s May Queen.  However, in spite of the pernickety prudery of the good townspeople, the natural instinct of their adolescent girls has made the supply of suitably chaste young ladies dwindle: they are more chased than chaste.  But, as her ladyship candidly puts it “we want virgins, not trollops”.  Miss Pike, the custodian of the town’s propriety, however has evidence that there is none of the former.  However, the day is saved when the superintendent makes the pragmatic suggestion that they should elect a May King instead.  It is he who with get the twenty-five sovereign prize and the orange-blossom wreath: a “crown of simple and refulgent splendour … without recourse to gender”.

When it comes to being larger than life, the personality of the indomitable Lady Billows is titanic. Irish soprano Orla Boylan, having recently taken on many of the most imposing of Wagnerian roles and many of Richard Strauss, savours the part with obvious delight and with great gusto.  Her gorgon glare petrifies all opposition, one withering look would render the bravest powerless, and what a line in eyebrow acting!  Add an imperious sculptured voice and here is an awe-inspiring Lady Billows.

Albert Herring - Benjamin Britten - The Grange Festival - 25 June 2017

Conductor - Steuart Bedford
Director - John Copley
Set Designer - Tim Reed
Costume Designer - Prue Handley
Lighting Designer - Kevin Treacy

Lady Billows - Orla Moylan
Florence Pike -

The town’s committee of moral guardians are acted with superb comic timing, but nothing is overtly played for laughs, whilst vocally they are a faultless ensemble.  When they have made their decision, they sing a beautifully figured quintet that smacks of Mozart at his best.  Anna Gillingham as the earnest and euphoric schoolmistress Miss Wordsworth, her bright soprano ringing like a school bell, has some nice comic asides when rehearsing with her young charges for the May fair, and when primly avoiding the in-spite-of-himself advances of the vicar, Mr Gedge.  (All very subtle, of course, “the flowers appear on the earth… Solomon’s Song, you know”).   Alexander Robin-Baker’s Mr. Gedge almost blushes at the idea.  His resonant baritone captures the lyricism in his words, and one feels the sincerity in his homily, “Virtue … Rarer than pearls, rubies, amethyst; richer than wealth, wisdom, righteousness”.  Mr. Upfold, the mayor, is a much more down to earth character.  His speech at the May fair concentrates on the twelve inch water main (“costing six pounds ten the yard”) before moving onto virtue.  Established character tenor, Adrian Thompson takes pomp, proclamation and patter all in his stride.  Icelandic bass-baritone Andri Björn Róbertsson bristles with righteousness as Superintendent Budd (topically bemoaning that his police force is overstretched).  This cohort of Loxford’s big-wigs is administered by the fastidious Miss Pike, played by Clarissa Meek as an acerbic and cadaverous éminence grise.  Meek knows how to use the score and her sturdy mezzo comes across as assuredly authoritarian.

Albert Herring - Benjamin Britten - The Grange Festival - 25 June 2017

Conductor - Steuart Bedford
Director - John Copley
Set Designer - Tim Reed
Costume Designer - Prue Handley
Lighting Designer - Kevin Treacy

Lady Billows - Orla Moylan
Florence Pike -

From the less buttoned-up townsfolk come Sid, the butcher’s boy, and Nancy from the bakery.  Indeed they seem to spend a lot of time unbuttoning each other (and presenting lots of opportunities for double entendres about ripe peaches and seizing the pleasures of life), but they are the most warm-hearted of Loxford’s characters.   Tim Nelson plays Sid as a Jack-the-lad and his rounded baritone has an almost folksy feel.  Kitty Whately makes a charming Nancy, flirtatious, light-hearted and caring, her tender mezzo just right for the character.  And it is inevitably Sid and Nancy who are the catalysts in making the idea of a May King go awry.

The May King is to be Albert Herring, the greengrocer’s lad, tied firmly to his widowed mum’s apron-strings, repressed and timid, but oh so good.  He is respectful of everyone and always does the right thing by the mores of the day: an ideal candidate.  The committee troop to the greengrocers with Miss Pike in the vanguard.  Albert is not so keen to be dressed in virginal white and paraded before the town, but his mother is keen on the twenty-five sovereigns.  We hear in Britten’s harp score the stream of gold coins tinkling in her mind.

Albert Herring - Benjamin Britten - The Grange Festival - 25 June 2017

Conductor - Steuart Bedford
Director - John Copley
Set Designer - Tim Reed
Costume Designer - Prue Handley
Lighting Designer - Kevin Treacy

Lady Billows - Orla Moylan
Florence Pike -

At the May fair, Albert sits embarrassed as all the archetypical speeches are made, and he is presented with the sovereigns, plus a savings’ stamp card with an extra five pounds, and the edifying Foxe’s Book of Martyrs by Miss Wordsworth.  He cringes as three schoolchildren sing his praises.   Sopranos Emily Vine and Catriona Hewitson and treble Jack Stone had all the mischievousness of Emmie, Cis and Harry, the children who taunt Albert (and Sid and Nancy).  Then the ground-swallowing moment when Albert is asked to make a speech.  Lady Billows exhorts him to “keep your powder dry and leave the rest to Nature”.    However, his metaphoric powder is not dry and neither is his lemonade.  It has been liberally spiked with rum by Sid and Nancy.  So Nature kicks in with a vengeance and off he goes on an all-night bender; steals a bike, drinks beer, rum and gin in quick succession at a series of pubs; has a fight with a publican, a quick snooze in the gutter; then off again for “a general sample of a night that was an example of drunkenness, dirt and worse”, all paid for with Albert’s “virgin ransom”.

Albert Herring - Benjamin Britten - The Grange Festival - 25 June 2017

Conductor - Steuart Bedford
Director - John Copley
Set Designer - Tim Reed
Costume Designer - Prue Handley
Lighting Designer - Kevin Treacy

Lady Billows - Orla Moylan
Florence Pike -

In the eponymous role, Richard Pinkstone paints a lively picture of Albert, never quite the wimp.  From the beginning, we feel him trying to break free from his mother’s smother-love, his discomfort at the May fair ceremony, his alcohol-triggered right-of-passage, and his manumission from his claustrophobic home-life.  Pinkstone effectively makes this emotional journey in a completely believable way.   Whilst still studying for his Master’s at Royal College of Music, he brings a very mature vocal performance with a confident operatic tenor voice.  Moreover, he clearly enjoys the role which he makes his own.

Mrs Herring knows her place, she knows what’s right … and she knows what’s right for Albert.  He is all she has and she is not going to let go.  And so he is suffocated in her matronly bosom.  One cannot help feeling a little sympathy for her.  Kathleen Wilkinson plays the strait-laced Mrs Herring as steadfastly in control, her strong mezzo robustly portraying the character.

Albert Herring - Benjamin Britten - The Grange Festival - 25 June 2017

Conductor - Steuart Bedford
Director - John Copley
Set Designer - Tim Reed
Costume Designer - Prue Handley
Lighting Designer - Kevin Treacy

Lady Billows - Orla Moylan
Florence Pike -

When Albert is missing after his nocturnal binge, all of the other adult characters prematurely fret about his fate, building to frenzied dirge with full purple passages on mortality and death.  This culminates in an extraordinary nonet, intricately structured in passacaglia form.  Ostensibly mourning Albert, one wonders whether it is really a threnody for lost virginity.  Then the bemused and befuddled Albert returns and the mood collapses in bathos.  It is brilliant writing.

Albert Herring has thirteen named roles and Britten scored it for a chamber orchestra of thirteen.  (He clearly wasn’t superstitious.)  However, his score has the feel of a full symphony orchestra in its complexity.  Moreover it is full of musical witticisms and echoes, the flute for Sid’s yoo-hoo whistle, the bassoon for nightfall, the harp for the gold coins, and the Tristan chord for the draining of the spiked drink.  It is a well-crafted piece and could not be in better hands than conductor, Steuart Bedford, who knew Britten well and worked with him in Aldeburgh, and is recognised as a foremost Britten expert.   Under his baton, the Aurora Orchestra is precise, vivacious, and intelligently paced.

The Grange Festival company under the eminent guidance of Copley and Bedford has created a stylish period piece of great charm that is hugely entertaining, musically stimulating and hellishly funny.  The world has unquestionably moved on, but the Loxford we see is gentle satirised, the nostalgia is respectful and underneath the laughter there floats an elusive wistfulness.

Mark Aspen

June 2017

Photography by Bob Workman

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From → Opera, Reviews

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