Benjamin Britten’s genuinely comic and oddly informal chamber opera, Albert Herring, always seemed a perfect choice for staging in the Howard Assembly Room – and so it proved in Giles Havergal’s revelatory production for Opera North.
Eric Crozier’s witty, humane and lightly satirical libretto focuses on the attempt of Lady Billows, lady of the manor, to find a candidate for May Queen. Unfortunately the only suitably virginal character in Loxford is Albert Herring, the shy and slow son of Mrs. Herring, the greengrocer. He becomes May King and immediately goes (relatively speaking) off the rails. Musically there are soul-searching scenes for Albert, bullied by his mother and envious of the sexual freedom of his friends Sid and Nancy, but there are also glorious ensembles (liable to break into a fugue at any moment) involving the worthies of the village paying homage at the court of Lady Billows.
These ensembles are the element of Albert Herring most transformed in this production. The acting area, with the small orchestra at the far end, stretches in an extended U shape between the audience seats, with entrances placed at both ends and in the middle. Havergal fills the space superbly, with the various characters in an ensemble spread across the acting area and aiming their comments at individual areas of the audience, so, when Superintendant Budd comments that Albert’s acceptance speech is a bit short, the temptation is to nod to him and agree! As this is a remarkably mobile production (movement by Tim Claydon), you follow the bemused expressions and puzzled asides of each character in turn.
Alexander Sprague initially looks rather too robust and self-sufficient for Albert, but his sullen acceptance of his lot followed by his drunken breaking out rings true. He is one of a trio of young singers making their debuts with the company (Marc Callahan as Sid and Katie Bray as Nancy are the others) who sing elegantly, act convincingly and clearly enjoy the fun. At the other extreme in terms of experience with the company is Josephine Barstow, physically and vocally imperious as Lady Billows, though I would like to have picked up more of her words. Her obedient entourage is headed by the excellent Elizabeth Sikora as her put-upon companion, Florence Pike, and includes a delightfully complementary set of town worthies: Mary Hegarty (schoolteacher), William Dazeley (vicar), Joseph Shovelton (mayor) and Graham Danby (police superintendent). Add in Fiona Kimm’s termagant Mrs. Herring and some very capable youngsters headed by Charlotte Trepess’s Emmie and you have a perfectly balanced cast.
Leslie Travers’ ingenious designs make great play with wooden crates which open up to reveal such goodies as tempting (and very cheap) fruit and veg. Costumes are stylishly and colourfully in period for 1947 when the opera was composed. And, most important of all, Justin Doyle’s conducting keeps the whole thing together, even in the most far-flung of ensembles, and draws especially fine playing from the woodwind.
Albert Herring continues at the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds Grand Theatre until 25 May. For further information visit www.operanorth.co.uk