With a combined age of 161 years, John Copley and Steuart Bedford certainly bring ample experience to Grange Festival's new production of Britten's Albert Herring. As a youngster, Copley played the apprentice in Peter Grimes, while his career as a director has extended well over half a century, including a legendary 1974 La bohème at Covent Garden, which was only retired two years ago (much to his chagrin). Bedford had a long association with Benjamin Britten, conducting the world première of Death in Venice at Aldeburgh in 1973. These wise heads have masterminded a terrific Albert Herring, nicely cast.

Adrian Thompson (Mr Upfold), Clarissa Meek (Florence Pike) and Orla Boylan (Lady Billows) © Robert Workman
Adrian Thompson (Mr Upfold), Clarissa Meek (Florence Pike) and Orla Boylan (Lady Billows)
© Robert Workman

Britten and his librettist Eric Crozier based the opera on Guy de Maupassant's French novel Le Rosier de Madame Husson, resetting it in the composer's native Suffolk. Lady Billows and her committee are determined to find a suitable candidate to be the Loxford May Queen, but when all the girls nominated are found wanting in respect of their virtue, an alternative is sought – Albert Herring, the innocent young lad who works at the greengrocer’s, is elected May King instead. When Albert drinks his pink lemonade at his coronation, unaware it’s been laced with rum by Sid, his new-found confidence leads him to make a bold bid for independence, sneaking out for an all-night bender only to go missing the next day. When his May crown is discovered, crushed by a passing cart, the residents of Loxford fear the worst, only for an emboldened Albert to return, ready to rebel against all authority... or at least to cut his mother's apron strings.

Clarissa Meek (Florence Pike), Kathleen Wilkinson (Mrs Herring) and Richard Pinkstone (Albert) © Robert Workman
Clarissa Meek (Florence Pike), Kathleen Wilkinson (Mrs Herring) and Richard Pinkstone (Albert)
© Robert Workman

Copley presents the work with the straightest of bats, observing every detail of the libretto. Tim Reed's sets are shunted into place by stagehands dressed as Loxford villagers or Lady Billows' staff, an example of good old-fashioned stagecraft. Mrs Herring's shop then rotates to reveal a snug pub scene to illustrate part of Albert's wild night out. A row of reed beds are suggestive of Britten's beloved Snape.

Emily Vine (Emmie), Jack Stone (Harry) and Catriona Hewitson (Cis) © Robert Workman
Emily Vine (Emmie), Jack Stone (Harry) and Catriona Hewitson (Cis)
© Robert Workman

All the characters are acutely drawn. Her Ladyship's committee are caricatures, and Copley has great fun drawing them larger than life. None come larger than Orla Boylan's doughty Lady Billows, Wagnerian in voice, Churchillian in character, terrifying everyone. The opera's other fearsome ladies – Florence Pike and Albert's domineering mother – couldn't quite compete with Boylan's performance. Alexander Robin-Baker's vicar, clearly besotted with Anna Gillingham's schoolteacher, displayed a ringing voice, almost tenorial in tone, while Adrian Thompson declaimed the mayor's grand proclamations boldly. Not all the cast shared his excellent clarity of diction.

Kitty Whately (Nancy) and Tim Nelson (Sid) © Robert Workman
Kitty Whately (Nancy) and Tim Nelson (Sid)
© Robert Workman

Albert himself was sympathetically sung by Richard Pinkstone, his willowy tenor capable of rising to heroic determination as he broke loose. From the moment he supped the pink lemonade spiked with rum – deliciously set up by Britten’s Tristan und Isolde quote – Pinkstone clearly had a lot of fun playing drunk. Sid and Nancy are the two most human characters in the opera and Tim Nelson and Kitty Whately gave believable performances. Nelson has a nimble baritone and presented a cocky, but lovable butcher’s boy. Whately’s warm mezzo made for an attractive Nancy, coquettish but concerned when their prank turns sour. Bright-toned Emily Vine excelled as Emmie, one of the children who taunt Albert.

Under Bedford, the Aurora Orchestra – which I last heard play this score for English Touring Opera – were vibrant, alert to every nuance of Britten’s witty score. Bedford drove things along briskly, contributing to a peach of a production.