“Community, exclusion, rejection and desire”, writes director Christopher Rolls about English Touring Opera’s production of Albert Herring. “Doesn’t sound like a recipe for an uproarious comedy does it? And the key thing about Herring is that it is very very funny.” Britten’s comic chamber opera, composed in 1946, is a beautiful portrayal of country life in the rural Suffolk that Britten himself knew so well, with the eccentric mix of characters you would find in any rural town: the larger-than-life village matron, the eager schoolteacher, the bumbling cockney policeman, the self-important mayor – the list goes on. The joy of Britten’s score is that each of these characters is brought to life in the colourful orchestral parts and the imaginative recitative writing.

Mark Wilde © Richard Hubert Smith
Mark Wilde
© Richard Hubert Smith

Written soon after Britten’s more serious opera, The Rape of Lucretia, Albert Herring is based on Guy de Maupassant’s short story, Le rosier de Madame Hussan. Translated from provincial Normandy by Eric Crozier, the rather thin story gains life and substance in Britten’s setting, with the Suffolk dialect colouring the libretto and the characters themselves. Set in Loxford, the opera opens with Lady Billows (Jennifer Rhys-Davies) trying to decide on a May Queen. Having discussed every girl in the village and rejected them all, Superintendant Budd (Tim Dawkins) suggests the possibility of crowning a May King instead. At first the imposing Lady B. dismisses this as a preposterous idea, but when the name of Albert Herring (Mark Wilde) is put forward he appears to be the perfect candidate: loyal and virtuous, if a little simple. We are introduced to Albert at work in his mother’s greengrocer’s shop; Wilde made an extremely endearing Herring, with nervous twitches and a rather sweet self-deprecating quality. We are also introduced to his neighbours, the young couple Sid (Charles Rice) and Nancy (Martha Jones), and the local children (Emily-Jane Thomas, Erin Hughes and Benedict Munden), up to their usual pranks.

The main stage area was enclosed by a large half-room, half-cage construction, which was both an extremely flexible backdrop and a representation of the feeling of entrapment and oppression felt by Albert in the first half of the opera. It was also very interesting to be able to see the characters before their official entrances and exits, which I thought worked well. I did think, however, that the props and costuming were a little obvious, considering some of the adventurous productions that have emerged from the ETO in previous seasons, but, that said, both the characters and setting were comfortably naturalistic which allowed the comedic fun to speak for itself.

As one would expect from a professional opera company, the vocal technique of all the performers was exemplary. However what was most impressive were the varied vocal colours the singers brought to their characters; Superintendant Budd had an unwavering strong Cockney twang throughout and the impressive Lady B shone in her marathon role. The children also deserve special mention – Britten never panders to age, and writes equally challenging and memorable lines for the trebles. The rehearsal scene for the May Day celebrations was particularly amusing, with the children winding their schoolmistress up with their lazy pronunciation.

In the second half, we reach the May Day celebrations and Sid and Nancy have a plan up their sleeves; they lace Albert’s lemonade with rum, which causes him to become immediately ‘much brisker’. When the celebrations are over, he returns home and sings about the fantastic feast. The return of Sid and Nancy, stealing a kiss in the shop, sparks a confession of his love for Nancy, which I thought was beautifully played by Wilde – his wild mixture of emotion was plain to see and he runs out into the night, with the impulsive certainty of the inebriated. This use of the ‘back stage’ in particular was rather lovely, his final escape from the imprisonment of society represented in his exit from the cage-like structure. In the morning, the whole village is sure he is dead, even more so when they find his May Day crown crushed on the road out of the village. He, of course, eventually returns, somewhat dishevelled but a new and independent man.

The beauty of this production was the simplicity with which it was presented. Britten’s scoring and clever use of recitative contains all the dramatic and comedic content and really needs no embellishment. The orchestra were finely balanced and provided a solid base for the vocal lines and even some rather funny moments in the scoring, which were skilfully managed by conductor and Britten-expert Michael Rosewell. There were a few lovely occasions in which some additional comedy was extracted with a look (or a squeeze!) – I thought Rosie Aldridge, playing Florence Pike, was a master of this, with her disdainful manner and fabulous facial expressions providing humour throughout. A very enjoyable evening!

***11