‘To lose one singer, Mr Terracini, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two, one of them in the title role, looks like … a disaster’. Such were the thoughts running through my head when the Artistic Director of Opera Australia made the pre-performance announcement. (And if you’re wondering why my thoughts should have framed themselves as a distorted version of the famous lines from The Importance of Being Earnest, well Albert Herring resembles Wilde’s masterpiece in being a quintessentially British comedy set in late Victorian times. Anyway, that’s how I roll.) However, while I was particularly looking forward to seeing the noted comic talents of Kanen Breen in the role of Albert, there were compensations aplenty in the form of Brad Cooper, who was making his debut as principal with the company. Both he and the other ring-in, Jane Ede (who took on the crucial role of Lady Billows), slotted seamlessly into the production, and acquitted themselves with high honours.

Conal Coad, John Longmuir, Kanen Breen, Jane Ede, Michael Lewis and Elvira Fatykhova, Michael Lewis, © Branco Gaica
Conal Coad, John Longmuir, Kanen Breen, Jane Ede, Michael Lewis and Elvira Fatykhova, Michael Lewis,
© Branco Gaica

The production was traditional, as is right and proper for this type of period-specific story – it’s deliberately of its time, and updating it would nullify its charms. (This is especially important for opera in English, I feel, as we don’t have the distancing effect of language to cushion our incredulity.) I don’t know how long the sets have been in use, but the Act 2 Marquee looked very similar to a photograph from 1978 in the program book, as did the costumes. There were cutaway interiors of Lady Billows’s finely appointed house (Act 1 Scene 1) and the Herring’s grocers shop (Act 1 Scene 2), the latter rotatable to get the street scene outside as well.

My personal favourite in an excellent cast was Dominica Matthews, who had a scene-stealing turn as the disapproving maid Florence. There were also fine comic performances from Conal Coad (as Superintendent Budd – his roguish wink to Albert near the end was worth the price of admission alone) and Michael Lewis (the Vicar, who was rather hoarse-sounding, but amusing in his antics). John Longmuir (Mr Upfold, the Mayor) made less of an impression as an actor, but he sounded fine. So too did Elvira Fatykhova, who took on the role of the teacher, Miss Wordsworth, although her enunciation of the text was at times rather unclear. Jane Ede was wonderfully haughty as the prudish Lady Billows, and was in fine voice – my only reservation was towards the end of Scene 1, where her swaying and arm position suggested she was about to break into a number from a 1930's musical.

In Scene 2, we were introduced to Samuel Dundas, who played the rakish Sid with just the right amount of roistering charm, and Sian Pendry, who was endearing as his young lady, Nancy. The three children rose to the considerable singing and acting challenges well: Angela Arduca (who played Emmie) has a genuinely lovely voice, which bodes well for the future; while Jordan Dulieu as Harry, and Jessica Zylstra as Cis were both delightful. Albert’s overbearing mother was played with gusto by Roxane Hislop.

Brad Cooper (no, not the Silver Linings Playbook guy) trod a fine line between gormlessness and repression in the first half of the opera, and had us rooting for him in his fight against the repressive forces of the town. His tenor voice sounded warm and even throughout its range, and there were no noticeable signs of nerves. The only scene which was somewhat lacking was that at the end of Act II, where the inebriated Albert finally resolves to kick over the traces. Compared to the overt comedy in the rest of the opera, this soul-searching moment fell a bit flat.

The chamber orchestra was directed by the undemonstrative but highly effective Anthony Legge, who expertly cued singers and musicians through the somewhat tricky score. The smaller number of musicians (twelve in total) meant that they could be liberated from the confines of the pit, which had a beneficial effect on the overall sound.

When Opera Australia announced their 2013 line-up, I recall hearing several people complain about the disproportionate treatment of the three ‘anniversary’ composers: Wagner’s Ring is being performed in Melbourne in December (if only they gave reviewing tickets to Bachtrack!), Verdi was represented by no fewer than four different operas, but the sole work by Britten was the present one, running for a measly five performances. Those who have been around Sydney longer than me have suggested that the company’s Britten productions are among the things they do best. While it is a shame to see the centenary of Britten’s birth go by so little marked, one can nonetheless be thankful that at least with Albert Herring they got things so very right.