July is an exciting month in Buxton, bringing a flurry of festivals to the exquisite Georgian spa town: not just the opera, literature, jazz and other music of the Buxton International Festival (soon to celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2019), but well dressing, a special Derbyshire tradition which can be directly traced back to the 17th century, and reaches far beyond that into the county’s folk history past. Like so many other English country customs, well dressing was powerfully reinvigorated by the Victorians, and remains a folk art fixture in certain parts of the county to this day; other villages periodically revive it, according to local enthusiasm.

Bradley Smith (Albert) © Robert Workman
Bradley Smith (Albert)
© Robert Workman

Art meets life, then, in Buxton’s choice of Albert Herring for this year, Britten’s comic opera which sees Lady Billows, self-appointed moral bastion of the Suffolk village of Loxford, reviving the tradition of the May Queen in an attempt to promote the virtues of purity and chastity among Loxford’s girls. However, it’s a case of shutting the stable door long after the horse has bolted, and unable to find a Loxford maiden worthy of the name, Lady Billows and her committee are forced to select Albert as May King, the unimpeachable son of Mrs Herring, keeper of the village shop, who has never besmirched his reputation in thought, word, or deed. Ironically, it’s his £25 prize, Virtue’s literal earthy reward as donated by Lady Billows, which gives Albert the means – as well as the provocation – to throw off the shackles of filial obedience and disappear into the dark to see what temptation actually has to offer, throwing the community into hysteria, and his Mum into hysterics; I trust the revival of well dressing has never wrought similar havoc on some secluded corner of Derbyshire.

Director Francis Matthews places Albert Herring unerringly in the post-war period of its genesis: a framed photograph of Winston Churchill hangs on the wall, an atmosphere of rationing pervades (Eric Crozier’s libretto continuously teases us with tantalising references to food and fresh fruit), and characters wear sensible tweed, wool and serge. Adrian Linford’s arresting set design uses an unfinished picture-postcard as its background, burnt and damaged in one corner, not yet painted in the other, to show Lady Billows’ nostalgic dream of a perfect village is as doomed as it is imaginary; Act 2 sees the marquee planned for Albert’s coronation tea fly away, with the chorus doggedly clutching umbrellas, in true English summer tradition. Matthews adds a silent Stranger, acted by Simeon John-Wake, sashaying through the set regularly in a sharp suit and hat, half his face painted white; when Albert plucks up the courage to seek adventure, the Stranger teaches him how to dance – an allegory of how to escape. This embodying the exotic Other on stage isn’t a new idea for staging this opera, but, as ever, it works. Mrs Herring’s shop is beautifully and believably real, with barrows of vegetables, sacks, crates, wooden shelves and the all-important shop’s doorbell tinkling loudly at entrance and exit (or when rung in mischief by cheeky village children).

Yvonne Howard (Lady Billows), Nicholas Merryweather (Mr Gedge) and Lucy Schaufer (Florence Pike) © Robert Workman
Yvonne Howard (Lady Billows), Nicholas Merryweather (Mr Gedge) and Lucy Schaufer (Florence Pike)
© Robert Workman

Matthews’ production promises much, but on the opening night it was only Act 3 which really zinged along with unremitting surreal energy and dangerously touching humour. The Northern Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Justin Doyle, delivered all the bewilderingly complex layers of Britten’s score as it winds steadily towards Albert’s final, triumphant transformation, but some slightly uneven casting makes it difficult to settle into the plot: so, while Lucy Schaufer made a formidably stern and richly-voiced Florence Pike, Yvonne Howard, though nicely tweedy, didn’t have quite the authoritative power a great Lady Billows can wield. Nevetheless, Howard flashes an eyebrow superbly, and her gushing congratulatory speech to Albert (a paean of pride in her own idea, which deteriorates into an incoherent mash of unfinished slogans) was hilarious. Morgan Pearse’s glorious Sid carried all before him, nonchalant and blokeish at one moment, thrillingly passionate the next; Kathryn Rudge’s Nancy, though entirely pleasing and competent with her bright, clear soprano, was no match for Sid in charisma, so their love story didn’t quite steal our hearts. Bradley Smith, demure and bespectacled as our hero, took Albert to the geekiest possible extreme; his craven lack of self-esteem would have made more sense with a crueller, darker Mrs Herring from Heather Shipp, but the back story of their tiny family (where is Albert’s father?), and how Mrs Herring could exert such complete control over her son, didn’t ever quite come into focus.

Kathryn Rudge (Nancy) and Morgan Pearse (Sid) © Robert Workman
Kathryn Rudge (Nancy) and Morgan Pearse (Sid)
© Robert Workman

Smaller roles are more evenly effective. Nicholas Merryweather was superb as the unctuous Mr Gedge, a vicar with more than a touch of Jane Austen’s Mr Collins about him, ever ready to soothe ruffled tempers with a scrap from the Psalms. Mary Hegarty was delightfully querulous as a self-consciously proper, elderly Miss Wordsworth. Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts made a warmly avuncular Mr Upfold, Mayor of Loxford, while John Molloy steadily gained in authority and presence as the world-weary, yet ever hopeful Superintendent Budd.