Conservatorium Theatre, Queensland Conservatorium
September 11, 2016

“Stuffy! Tobacco stink! Nasty masculine smell!” cries Lady Billows as she makes her ceremonious way down the stairs of her Edwardian country manor – a gorgeous set by Felicity Abbott. The source of her irritation is the pipe smoke produced by Superintendent Budd, which wafts out over the audience in the Queensland Conservatorium’s Theatre in the opening scene of Albert Herring. The Superintendent is just one of a delegation of local dignitaries who have arrived to decide whom to name as Queen of the May.

Albert Herring, directed by Bruce Beresford, is visually stunning, with Abbott’s lavish sets and sumptuous costumes by Wendy Cork placing the action firmly in period, in an English market town – Loxford – at the turn of the 20th century. Benjamin Britten’s comic opera tells the story of Albert, a shy greengrocer who is corralled into being crowned May King in celebration of his virginal purity when the committee – led by Lady Billows – finds the girls of the town lacking.

The town of Loxford celebrates the crowning of their May King, photo © Christian Tiger

Beresford, better known for his films (Driving Miss Daisy and Mao’s Last Dancer to name a few) brings a cinematic elegance to the production. The opening scene even includes video elements, the moving faces of potential May Queens smiling down from a portrait on the wall – and pouting when they are ultimately rejected.

While this is a student production, the singing is generally excellent and although surtitles are provided, the clear diction of the singers renders them unnecessary. There are two alternating casts and for the Sunday performance Michelle Alexander was Lady Billows. Alexander is a powerhouse soprano, inhabiting a Lady B both pompous and mercurial. Her maid, contralto Anastasia Bickel, has a voice of dark velvet and infuses the character of Florence Pike with the authority and resolution to make her mistress’s often absurd demands a reality, though her sound is somewhat dwarfed beneath Alexander’s.

Michelle Alexander as Lady Billows, photo © Christian Tiger

Samuel Piper’s Sid (the butcher’s assistant) exudes an easy confidence – his voice dancing with the clarinet as he schools Herring on the pleasures of trout-tickling – and Naomi Bakker’s Nancy (from the bakery) makes a lithe sparring partner, her mezzo-soprano an easy match for Piper’s baritone, both flirting and fighting. As Albert’s mother, Brigette De Poi’s mezzo-soprano is sweet and lustrous, but she doesn’t quite inspire the fear that would make her son’s obeisance believable – even when’s she’s threatening to smack him.

Samuel Piper as Sid and Naomi Bakker as Nancy, photo © Christian Tiger

Phillip Prendergast is a poised, dignified Albert who suffers Sid and Nancy’s saucy banter quietly, but whose discomfort at the May Day ceremony is palpable – he literally pales when called upon to speak. His voice, though, is a clear, penetrating tenor that’s more than enough to make him the show’s hero as he squeezes comedy and pathos from his character.

Eric Crozier’s libretto is full of humour and thinly veiled double-entendres. But while the subject of the opera is light-hearted, Britten’s score is complex and the agile 13-piece orchestra under the baton of Nicholas Cleobury took to it with energy and precision. The music is also full of jokes: Britten works in Wagner’s Tristan chord – spiking the music as Sid spikes Albert’s lemonade with the rum that will trigger his long overdue rebellion – and the sliding ascent from the orchestra during Sid and Nancy’s prolonged kiss is a wonderful musical euphemism.

Phillip Prendergast as Albert Herring, photo © Christian Tiger

There are many great musical moments in this show, the quartet sung by Nancy, Mrs Herring, the Vicar (Mark Brooker) and Miss Wordsworth (Annika Hinrichs) when they suspect Albert has died – he’s really been out on the town – is a highlight and Henry Pinder as the Superintendent has a bass that is rich and dark despite all the pipe smoke.

This is a beautiful production with a gloss of slick sophistication to rival professional opera companies – and with such great musical material to work with, Albert Herring is well worth a look.

Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University presents Albert Herring at the Brisbane Festival. It plays the Conservatorium Theatre until September 17


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