Albert Herring, Buxton Festival, July 2017Posted on 9 July 2017
Its narrow-minded Suffolk village setting makes Benjamin Britten’s only comic opera something of a counterpoint to his Peter Grimes from two years earlier. The plot is based on a Guy de Maupassant short story where the absence of a suitable girl as Rose Queen prompts the village matriarch to crown a Rose King, who then uses the prize money to slum it in Paris where he goes seriously off the rails.
The witty conversion by Eric Crozier to the Suffolk village of Loxford has a happier ending. When Lady Billows and her assistant Florence Pike find no young woman sufficiently modest to merit the title of May Queen, the blamelessly chaste Albert becomes a reluctant May King instead and with 25 sovereigns of prize money in his pocket, disappears. The nine-person threnody in Act III when they imagine him dead and gone is a musical highlight, but he reappears after only one night away. This opera, full of wit and musical invention, received a super performance under the baton of Justin Doyle, with Bradley Smith sheer perfection as Albert Herring himself.
The whole cast did a terrific job: Yvonne Howard an imposing Lady Billows, Lucy Schaufer a remarkably strong and righteous Florence Pike with marvellous diction, and Heather Shipp giving a very fine Act II soliloquy as Albert’s mother Mrs Herring. Among the other principals, Albert’s friend Sid was strongly performed by Morgan Pearse, with Kathryn Rudge sassy and sympathetic as his girlfriend Nancy. Mary Hegarty made a wonderfully dull schoolteacher, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts a delightfully self-important mayor, John Molloy sang a lyrical bass as the unimaginative Superintendent Budd, and Nicholas Merryweather showed superb comic timing as the earnest vicar. In short this wonderful team brought the comedy fully to life, helped by Adrian Linford’s simple and very effective designs.
My one big complaint was the interpolation of a dancer with one side of his face painted, showing chaste perfection as a single aspect of a two-sided coin, but do we need this? Director Francis Matthews is from the theatre world, which can be a liability when working in opera, where music plays such a crucial role. Britten is nothing if not a subtle composer and his musical interlude in Act II, like the sea interludes in Peter Grimes, needs no theatrical tricks, whereas this production uses the smugly leering dancer as the serpent in a Garden of Eden tempting Albert with an apple. His increasingly annoying presence spoiled an otherwise good production.
The Venusberg-type scene among young villagers in the first half-minute already tells us that temptations abound, but the heavy petting later on becomes an unnecessary intrusion, and the music with its well-known Tristan chord should be allowed to speak for itself.
Performances continue on various dates until July 22 — for details click here.