Sunday, 5 July 2015

Albert Herring at the Royal College of Music

Peter Aisher, Janis Kelly, William Wallace, Timothy Connor, Maria Ostroukhova, Kieran Rayner, Simon Grange, Elspeth Marrow, Katie Coventry, Sofia Larsson - Albert Herring - Royal College of Music - photo credit Chris Christoudoulou
Peter Aisher, Janis Kelly, William Wallace, Timothy Connor, Maria Ostroukhova, Kieran Rayner, Simon Grange, Elspeth Marrow, Katie Coventry, Sofia Larsson - Albert Herring - Royal College of Music - photo credit Chris Christoudoulou
Benjamin Britten Albert Herring; Peter Aisher, Katie Coventry, Timothy Connor, Janis Kelly, dir: Liam Steel, cond: Michael Rosewell; Royal College of Music International Opera School at the Britten Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 04 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Strikingly imaginative version of this modern classic

Benjamin Britten's comic opera Albert Herring, with its youthful lead, and large number of vivid characters, would seem ideal material for music college performance. But many of the characters require the young singers to play far older. The new production at the Royal College of Music, directed by Liam Steel, designed by Anna Fleischle, with lighting by Joshua Carr, applied a lively imagination to the problem and came up with a vividly etched, and strongly characterised performance. Lady Billows was played not by a student, but by Janis Kelly who has sung the role in Los Angeles and who teaches at the Royal College of Music. The remainder of the cast were all from the opera course, and we saw the second cast (4 Jully 2015) led by Peter Aisher as Albert, Katie Coventry as Nancy and Timothy Connor as Sid. Michael Rosewell conducted the Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra.

Peter Aisher - Albert Herring - Royal College of Music - photo credit Chris Christodoulou
Peter Aisher
photo credit Chris Christodoulou
Anna Fleischle's set was on a revolve, one side a very striking depiction of the Herring's shop and the other the village hall. By some dextrous adjustments to the libretto these to settings did duty for the whole opera, (the opening scene took place in the village hall, and the May Day celebrations had clearly been relocated to the village hall by a thunderstorm). Liam Steel also used the revolve itself during the scene changes, with much coming and going in the town.

The characters of the town worthies were all played rather younger than they often are, giving them an additional reason to be in awe of Lady Billows (Janis Kelly) and thus not requiring the young singers to play old. And having a young cast meant that the entered with a will into Liam Steel's very distinctive style of physical theatre. Not everything was naturalistic, and a certain stylised element to the movement worked extremely well with the music and reminded me of some stagings of Rossini's comic operas.

But Liam Steel was clearly interested in more than just telling a story, and his lively imagination had been at work in all sorts of details in the staging and the plot. There was a great deal of comic business, such as the Vicar (Kieran Rayner) constantly fiddling with the microphone during the May Day celebrations, which was very funny but sometimes felt like and added layer of comedy rather than being germane to the plot.

Liam Steel clearly wanted to puncture the rather self-satisfied town worthies, so that Mrs Herring (Maria Ostroukhova) had  drink habit and during the interlude between scenes one and two in Act 2 we saw all the worthies behaving badly after the May Day celebrations (The Vicar gets together with Miss Worthsworth (Sofia Larsson), and Superintendant Budd (Simon Grange) with Florence Pike (Elspeth Marrow), whilst Lady Billows and Mrs Herring swap hip flasks). So that their reaction to Albert's tale in Act 3 was placed in a far stronger context.

Peter Aisher, Timothy Connor, Katie Coventry - Albert Herring - Royal College of Music - photo credit Chris Christodoulou
Peter Aisher, Timothy Connor,
Katie Coventry
photo credit Chris Christodoulou
The issue of sex was key to the staging, as it was something the young people thought about too. Timothy Connor as Sid was hilariously suggestive; his apron had a pocket in the front at a key position, which gave a whole new meaning to Nancy phrase about her hand in his pocket. And Liam Steel had introduced an extra character, a young black leather jacketed lad (Michael Taylor Moran) who lurked around looking sexy and suggestive, and who was approached by Mr Upfold (William Wallace) clearly trying to buy sex). It is this young lad who leaves a note for Albert, and sets Albert on his night-time revels.

Many of these little changes worked well, and were funny but some seemed to be applied rather than arising out of character. The biggest miscalculation was to the opening. We are meant to hear Lady Billows before we see here (the semi-staging at the Barbican in 2013 had Christine Brewer hilariously in a huge wing arm-chair so we only saw her feet), so that our sense of expectation matches that of the town worthies when she finally does approach. Liam Steel punctured this by having her flitting in and out of the church hall. It worked with the music, but left us feeling a bit let down. The other detail which seemed to sit rather oddly was that in Act Two, Albert's May King outfit was a very large white dress.

That said, Liam Steel clearly got strong performances from all his cast, and they were obviously having great fun, which conveyed itself to us in their performance. Peter Aisher made a rather winsome Albert, not quite as dim as usual and with a real sense of personality. Katie Coventry brought a lovely warm mezzo-soprano voice with a great sense of personality to Nancy and her solo in Act 3 was very moving. Timothy Connor was a great delight as Sid, evincing a lovely knowing sense of fun throughout, this Sid was always going to be trouble but charmed too.

Janis Kelly, Simon Grange, William Wallace, Kieran Rayner, Sofia Larsson - Albert Herring - Royal College of Music - photo credit Chris Christodoulou
Janis Kelly, Simon Grange, William Wallace,
Kieran Rayner, Sofia Larsson
photo credit Chris Christodoulou
Elspeth Marrow played a slightly less harridan Florence Pike, with a sliver of humanity to her but still with a strong sense of the comedy to be had from Britten's setting of Eric Crozier's words Sofia Larsson was a mad coloratura delight as Miss Wordsworth, whilst Kieran Rayner was gloriously slimy as the trendy vicar. William Wallace as Mr Upfold had very much a young fogey look about him, and always seemed slightly demented. Simon Grange was physically extremely impressive as Superintendent Budd but his youth showed in his voice which does not, yet, have the dark, black edge ideal for this role. The worthies all showed a strong individual sense of comedy, but worked superbly as a team also.

Mrs Herring (Maria Ostroukhova) was less a character and more a type. Instead of mining the sense of comedy within the role (I remember Frances McCafferty's brilliant scene stealing performance in this role for Glyndebourne on Tour), we were presented with a series of set pieces. In Act One Mrs Herring is in her dressing gown, curlers and with a face pack, in Act Two we are introduced to her hip flask. Within these confines Maria Ostroukhova gave strong performance only compromised by the occasional occlusion of her words.

As Lady Billows, Janis Kelly gave a masterclass in comic acting and showed that with the right technique, you do not need a giant voice to sing this role. This was very much a Lady Billows who could quell a room with a look or a syllable.

The younger characters were strongly taken, with Sarah Hayashi as Emmie, Beshlie Thorp as Cis and Jack Shafran as Harry.

Michael Rosewell drew strong performances from his musicians, 13 in total including Rosewell himself on piano. Their lively playing adding to the strong sense of character within the production.

A bit too much of the action, however, seemed to be added on with a sense of physical comedy rather then exploring the sense comic character which is there in the libretto and music. This is an opera which required little help and Liam Steel seem a little too intent on exploring his own ideas. That said he drew from his cast a brilliant, comic rendering of this classic with the young singers evincing a lovely sense of ensemble and engagement with some striking individual performances.

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