On the surface, Britten’s Albert Herring is a gentle, pastoral comedy: the tale of the village simpleton who is chosen as May King when the local worthies are unable to find a virgin to be the (more traditional) May Queen. And indeed, it is very funny and full of English village colour. But scratch the skin and you will find a depth of cutting, bitter satire, whose target is the overbearing conventionality of the villagers and their cruelty to anyone different: although they are comedy and tragedy respectively, Albert Herring and Peter Grimes (composed two years earlier) are cut from the same cloth. The ever-incisive Guy de Maupassant, whose novella forms the basis of the opera, would have been proud.

William Johnston Davies as Albert © Richard Davenport
William Johnston Davies as Albert
© Richard Davenport

Albert Herring is a chamber opera, scored from the outset for a 12 piece orchestra plus conductor/keyboard. Unmodified, therefore, it fits perfectly into Hampstead Garden Opera’s small stage Upstairs at the Gatehouse (although the dizzying array of percussion instruments means the orchestra somewhat overspills its usual area). But even if the number of players is small, Britten’s score extracts a variety of orchestral timbres and colours that is just as extensive as that in his full scale works. Whether Britten is doing scurrying of the village schoolchildren, high emotion stuff to match Albert’s girding his loins to break free, standard English choral for the village worthies, rhapsodic love music for the sympathetic Sid and Nancy or quoting Tristan and Isolde for the moment when they spike Albert’s lemonade, every moment is different, every moment is virtuosic. Oliver-John Ruthven and the orchestra did a fine job of keeping the pace moving while giving us the full richness of Britten’s palette.

Unfortunately, Ruthven wasn’t always in control of the balance of orchestra against voices. We were just fine in the ensemble numbers, and these were magnificent, none more so than the extraordinarily complex number in Act III where the villagers sing a lament for the missing-and-presumed-dead Albert, one of the most incisive pieces of opera chorus singing that I’ve heard for a while. Similar virtuosity was shown in Act I as the village worthies sing together in a toe-curling outburst of dignity. However, in the passages when only one or two of the characters were singing, voices were sometimes drowned out – and if they weren’t, it was frequently at the expense of diction: I lost a lot of dialogue in the course of the evening.

When singing as individuals, the quality was variable, with the main male singers the more impressive. As the vicar Gedge, Shaun Aquilina made an impact from his very first notes with a baritone of uncharacteristic warmth, full and unforced. As Sid, Jon Stainsby has a slightly cooler timbre, but displayed the same easy strength and buckets of stage presence. As Albert, William Johnston Davies grew in strength as the opera progressed (as his character does). I suspect that Johnston Davies has been doing his homework listening to recordings of Peter Pears, since there was more than a hint of Pears’ mannerisms in the way he approached the role.

The Village Dignitaries © Richard Davenport
The Village Dignitaries
© Richard Davenport
The female cast was generally weaker, with the notable exception of Beth Moxon’s Nancy, which was warm and clear. As Lady Billows, the Lady of the Manor, Simone Sauphanor had a tendency to go angular and shrill, while Annette Durnville seemed too focused on an excellent piece of character acting as Florence Pike to give her vocal lines the full attention they need.

And indeed, the acting was excellent throughout, with Durville and Johnston Davies particularly compelling. Director Joe Austin has clearly worked very hard with his singers on the movement around stage: every gesture and piece of body language was precisely aligned to the action, often in imaginative ways, for example with people clustering together to sing out a big number as others shrunk away from them, in a way that wasn’t in any way photographic of real life yet perfectly achieved its impact. Maira Vazeou’s sets were uncomplicated but intelligent, providing a (literally, wooden) framework for the action.

The combination of Eric Crozier’s intelligent, witty libretto and Britten’s profusely inventive music makes Albert Herring a truly wonderful piece. This production does an excellent job of keeping you entertained while making clearly visible Britten and Crozier's utterly serious intent that underly the hilarity. In spite of its imperfections, therefore, this production makes for a thoroughly enjoyable evening of opera. If balance and diction can be sorted out through the run, it will only get better.