Pre-empting Britten’s centenary year, and with a wide-ranging tour across the country over the next six weeks including performances in Snape Maltings, English Touring Opera’s vivid new production of Albert Herring ended its initial three-performance run at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio. Directed by Christopher Rolls it is set within three sides of Neil Irish’s gilded cage: an impressive, see-through, lattice delineating the sanded floorboards of the acting area, seeping through to the dark exterior.
Rolls referred to the cage in his programme note, and while it’s not too overpowering an image in performance, it’s as if the audience is big brother looking at a little society, headed by Lady Billows, which wants to reward virtue (shy Albert Herring, always under the thumb of his mother) but unprepared for the consequences of the reward being the wherewithal by which Albert (surreptitiously aided by Sid’s spiking of his lemonade) samples the real world and finds a taste for life.
Albert Herring is a glorious piece, superbly crafted by Britten for just 13 instruments – here the as-ever excellent and characterful Aurora Orchestra, conducted by Michael Rosewell – and wittily constructed by librettist William Crozier. It remains astonishingly prescient, especially in the week of the Tory Party Conference.
Much of Rolls’ production is excellent. I especially liked his use of the cage’s darkened exterior for Loxford’s naughty children looking into Mrs Herring’s grocery and Sid and Nancy’s canoodling, firing up drunken Albert’s ardour to explore life for himself, armed with his prize for being May King (Lady Billows and her secretary Florence Pike having ruled out all the girls for various lapses of decorum). Diction suffered in some of the larger ensembles, although many of the more sparsely accompanied passages were exemplary, especially Martha Jones’ Nancy. Anna-Clare Monk’s Miss Wordsworth espoused a wonderfully funny (if non-recommendable) windmill-esque conducting technique to encourage the kids to sing their May Fair welcome song, and Mark Wilde’s intoxicated Albert grew in stature the drunker he got.
So there was much to enjoy, as the audience emphatically did. That I’m slightly more restrained is more to do with the feeling that this production will improve on its run, with the final pages of the score, particularly, becoming tauter. But, for personal taste, I would have liked a less mature and more impetuous Sid than Charles Rice gave us and a more imperious, haughtier and commanding Lady Billows than Jennifer Rhys-Davies’ – more Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess of Grantham than Penelope Wilton’s Mrs Crawley from Downton Abbey.