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Albert Herring is in some ways the sleeper amongst Benjamin Britten’s operas. A chamber opera in the pit but with a cast of 13 and some tricky scene changes it falls awkwardly into the expensive to put on category – surprisingly so for a composer whose sense of the practicality of mounting his work was legendary. It has also had a rough ride for its lack of intellectual conceit, yet as anyone prepared to give it more than a cursory glance will see at once, it has all the tell-tale signs of Britten’s fascination with the outsider in a conservative social setting and in the right hands it can pack an emotional punch. Kudos then to Opera Australia for bringing it back to the stage in the Britten centenary.
Albert Herring is an adaptation of a Maupassant short story, relocated from Normandy to Britten’s own Suffolk. It’s a gentle comedy of manners and social mores and requires a deft directorial hand to prevent its brushstrokes becoming too broad. It also needs a genuine ensemble cast, as adept at acting as they are in handling the deceptively straightforward vocal lines. For all its chirpy tunefulness this is difficult music, beset with pitfalls and traps for the unwary. Singers can’t afford to be caught conductor watching and musically it needs a firm hand on the tiller.
Fortunately, ensemble productions are one thing that Opera Australia tends to do very well and Albert doesn’t disappoint. Neither, at the end of the day, was the fact that the keenly anticipated ‘leads’ were both laid low with flu on opening night. Jacqueline Dark and Kanen Breen, both outstanding actor-singers and a potential gift to the roles of Lady Billows and Albert, were still recovering from the virus that seems to have struck down half of Sydney in recent weeks. Hopefully they will make a recovery in time to put in an appearance some time before the end of this all too short run. Meanwhile, their roles are in pretty safe hands.
John Cox’s honest-hearted production hails from 1976, but given the specificity of the setting and the period (it’s May Day, 1900) there’s little to make it feel dated and much to enjoy. There are some nice touches in the interpersonal relations – a budding romance between the vicar and Miss Wordsworth and a curious fondness for Mrs Herring on the part of Superintendent Budd. The former is rather obvious and overplayed, the latter is a delightful revelation and handled with style by Conal Coad and Roxane Hislop.
The cast are, without exception, on excellent vocal form, and several can be singled out, but the laurels on opening night were most definitely won by Brad Cooper in the title role. Albert is a tricky part, an avowed ‘simple soul’, it’s important to understand what that means in a more sensitive age. Given his adeptness at maths and sharpness of mind, nowadays we would probably have him down as a mild case of Aspergers. Cooper is totally convincing – both as a young man and as one coming to terms with the complex and frustrating sexual side of his character in an entirely closed society. The relationship with his mother and his burgeoning feelings for his best friend’s girl are delightfully explored. He captures better than anyone I’ve seen previously in the role the sense of Albert as outsider – his first monologue relating him firmly to characters like Grimes and Paul Bunyan’s Johnny Inkslinger. He also proves vocally ideal, exhibiting a perfect ‘light’ Britten tenor and bearing comparison with the likes of Bostridge, Padmore and Gilchrist. He is equally capable of a hushed pianissimo and a ringing forte and every word is clean and audible. His drunk scene was exemplary, pacier than is sometimes the case, and genuinely touching. A most auspicious debut.
The other opening night ‘stand-in’ was Jane Ede as Albert’s nemesis, the tyrannical Lady Billows. It’s a fine soprano voice with a good strong bottom when required and she rides the orchestra well. She is clearly shy of the character’s age by a good thirty years and although she has a good repertoire of aristocratic ticks and stage business – she’s more ‘jolly hockey-sticks' than many a Lady B – she still needs time to become a complete character. That said there was much to enjoy in her supercilious attitude to the unfortunate schoolmistress and more than a hint of the ‘Iron Lady’ about her despairing relations with her ineffectual male committee members.
Next to Cooper there are several very fine performances. Domenica Matthews is a treat as Lady Billow’s right hand, Florence Pike. A classic case of put upon servant who can’t wait to put upon those beneath her in turn, when Matthews declares that she’s “been around all the farms and small-holdings”, you really do believe she has. And you can imagine the terror a visit might engender. Vocally she’s ideal singing with refulgent tone and bags of personality. She’s well matched by Conal Coad’s bumbling Superintendent, all bluster and lack of imagination. Both actors possess the ability to fill the silences as well as the musical moments.
Samuel Dundas and Sian Pendry are also perfectly cast as local lovebirds Sid and Nancy. Dundas’s pinging baritone is allied to a warm stage presence and just the right level of sexual potency. Pendry has a lovely full mezzo and is spot on with her blend of Nancy’s sensual side and her natural kindness.
Michael Lewis as the vicar sings with firm tone and grace, his expounding of virtue beautifully brought out by Anthony Legge in the pit. John Longmuir is an attractively bright-voiced Mayor although a little heavy-handed as an actor. Elvira Fatykhova’s ravishing soprano delights with its pinpoint accuracy although her accent makes it hard to catch every word. Roxane Hislop’s overbearing Mrs Herring does exactly what it says on the tin.
Anthony Legge is the man charged with making this all come together and his is an admirably clear reading thanks to a small but perfectly formed set of orchestral players. With all of them out from under the stage, for once the sound was free of the usual Sydney Opera House muffled pit syndrome. Ironically, for all its Englishness Albert Herring is Britten at his most French and Legge draws out the parallels with key contemporaries like Poulenc and even Stravinsky. A good balance between pit and stage results in some revelatory moments, not the least of which occur in Britten’s love music – the jazzy walking bass line mixed with flute and saucy bassoon in the Sid, Nancy, Albert trio is imaginatively realised and the ravishing nocturnal music as Albert witnesses the lovers making out in the street includes a glorious string glissando when they kiss.
So, a fine Britten opera to celebrate Ben’s 100th in style, an admirable example of ensemble singing, and even a ‘star is born’ moment. Only four performances though so blink and you’ll miss it.
Albert Herring is at the Sydney Opera House until August 30.