music by Benjamin Britten libretto by Eric Crozier.
English Touring Opera Tour to 16 November 2012.
Runs 2hr 50min One interval.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 17 October at West Road Concert Hall Cambridge.
Village tradition takes a radical turn in inventive opera soundly produced.
It’s not that English Touring Opera is afraid of the grand-scale: Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra features in their forthcoming spring repertory. But this autumn they explore the resourcefulness of three composers with small-forces – Viktor Ullman writing The Emperor of Atlantis for the musicians in Terezin prison camp and Peter Maxwell Davies composing The Lighthouse for his chamber group the Fires of London.
Benjamin Britten had the success of Peter Grimes behind him, with other large-scale operas soon to come. But, like Maxwell Davies later, he thrived on the discipline of making much from limited numbers, producing, with newly-formed post-war English Opera Group, two fine tragedies, The Rape of Lucretia and The Turn of the Screw, and this rollicking village comedy.
Though it doesn’t rollick so much. Albert’s at the behest of his greengrocer mother and local social bigwig Lady Billows. Tradition, which must be upheld, demands a May Queen. But when Lady Billows tests the attractive local girls by their virtue the censorious notes of all-seeing housekeeper Florence reduces the prospective list (one’s so flighty, she answers the door in her nightie) to nil.
The radical answer is a May King. Greengrocer’s son Albert’s the man, but his virtue’s accompanied by shyness. At least, until local lad Sid plus his girl (how distant it seems when Sid and Nancy in music meant semi-innocent villagers) spike his drink. The unaccustomed intoxication sends him into the night to what could be his death (not much rollicking in that scene), before darkness gives way to a lighter outcome.
Potions have often motored character development, and Adam Tunnicliffe (singing-in with distinction for an indisposed Mark Wilde at Cambridge) shows Albert moving from terror when paraded in May King costume to a new sense of himself, playing joyfully with the local children who’d tormented him before.
Neil Irish’s skeletal, cage-like set indicates the limited life Albert’s led as he sets out his mother’s vegetables, while the lacklustre cleaning of Lady Billows’ maid suggests a stale society from the start. There’s nothing stale, though, about Britten’s musical invention, or its alert playing under Michael Rosewell’s baton
Lady Billows: Jennifer Rhys-Davies.
Florence Pike: Rosie Aldridge.
Miss Wordsworth: Anna-Clare Monk.
Mr Gedge: Charles Johnston.
Mr Upfold: Richard Roberts.
Superintendent Budd: Timothy Dawkins.
Sid: Charles Rice.
Albert Herring: Mark Wilde.
Nancy: Martha Jones.
Mrs Herring: Clarissa Meek.
Emmie: Erin Hughes.
Cis: Emily-Jane Thomas.
Harry: Alasdair Austin/Guy Fenton/Oliver Leach/Benedict Munden.
Director: Christopher Rolls.
Conductor: Michael Rosewell.
Designer: Neil Irish.
Lighting: Guy Hoare.
Assistant designer: Oliver Townsend.