Friday 5 October 2012

ETO - Albert Herring

ETO Albert Herring © Richard Hubert Smith,
Act 2 of Albert Herring
ETO at the Linbury Studio Theatre
© Richard Hubert Smith

English Touring Opera opened their Autumn season with a new production of a quintessentially English comedy, Albert Herring. Britten’s opera (with a libretto by Eric Crozier) has a very particular sense of time and place. So, though not immune to directorial tinkering, it is a work which responds well to productions which respect time and location and do not make too much of a directorial point. Christopher Rolls production was in many ways a model and he certainly brought out the comedy and social interaction. But above all, it was funny.

Though Britten wrote Albert Herring for his small scale English Opera Group, it is in fact a very odd opera for a small opera company to tour. It requires 13 solo roles (with no chorus) and each character needs a very strong singing actor and of course ETO needs to provide not only a singer for each role, but a cover (which they have done). It is an ensemble piece, each character has his or her moment, but it is the way that they work together that counts. ETO cast the work mainly from singers who have worked with them before. Lady Billows was played by Jennifer Rhys-Davies, who I can remember as a very memorable Elizabeth I in ETO’s Maria Stuarda. Albert was played by Mark Wilde, amongst whose roles for ETO was a very memorable Titus in La Clemenza di Tito. And there are plenty more examples.

Neil Irish’s set was an open lattice work which was cleverly transformed with minimal dressing, into the three very different locations often with some clever doubling up. For instance, the hideous Victorian side-boards in Lady Billows’s drawing room becoming the counter in Mrs Herring's shop. The basic set gave the idea of a cage which chimed in with the theme of the work. But it also meant that we could see through the walls, so that Rolls could sometimes bring characters on, before they were officially seen. For Lady Billows first entrance, we saw her walking round the stage whilst the characters on stage reacted with increasing anxiety.

Inevitably, on a low budget, Rolls and Irish did not give us a highly realistic picture of life in the Suffolk town in the way that Peter Hall’s production did at Glyndebourne. Nor was Rolls quite as interested in the detailed social niceties as Peter Hall. Instead we were treated to a gentle vein of comedy, some of it physical, running through the work. If Hall could be said to have brought out the serious side of the work then Rolls worked on its comic. There were occasionally bit of business, such as when the members of the parish council each have to stand up to tell Lady Billows of their suggestion for May Queen. As each singer stood up, they passed their tea cup to another, this ended up with a traffic jam of tea-cups, and the business with these counterpointed the comedy. Here, as elsewhere, Rolls was pointing things up rather than adding unnecessary layers. The tea-cup business helped define the various characters' ridiculous anxiety in the face of Lady Billows.

ETO Albert Herring © Richard Hubert Smith,
Rosie Aldrige, Jennifer Rhys-Davies, Anna-Clare Monk as
Florence Pike, Lady Billows, Miss Wordsworth
in Albert Herring © Richard Hubert Smith
In many ways, Lady Billows is a Marschallin-like figure, she is nominally a minor character but she dominates the work. And the choice of singer for the role affects the entire production. I am lucky enough to have seen Pauline Tinsley as Lady Billows and her performance still remains a touchstone. The role was written for Joan Cross who was a lyric soprano who developed into a dramatic one, a noted Marschallin with various Wagner roles under her belt. The singer needs to be able to quell a room with a look and a syllable. Lighter voiced sopranos have taken the role, but too often you are aware of the management needed to make things work vocally.

Jennifer Rhys-Davies had the personality and stage presence for the role in spades, she commanded almost before she came on stage. In the first act, I thought that vocally she had a little too much vibrato and not enough laser-like accuracy for my taste. But this was the opening act of the first night, and things settled down as the opera progressed. She had a nice sense of her own importance and was very funny, without sending the character up. The comedy in this piece requires us to take the various characters at their own face value, we can be laughing at them too much. It is a comedy of manners and character, not farce.

Rosie Aldridge was rather more companion than housekeeper as Florence Pike. Dressed in trousers all the time she embodied the busy-body poor relation living with Lady Billows. Aldridge seemed to have been channelling Hyacinth Bucket, but the result was funny and Aldridge would seem to be a fine comedian. She and Rhys-Davies made a very fine double act.

ETO Albert Herring © Richard Hubert Smith,
Marke Wilde as Albert in act 2
of Albert Herring
© Richard Hubert Smith
Mark Wilde is perhaps slightly older than some of the singers who have played Albert. There was no attempt to make Albert a gauche teenager, instead Wilde was a blocky, rather slow bloke who had obviously lived with his mum well after leaving school early. He even had a twitch, which I thought perhaps going a little too far. It was a great performance, very funny and a subtle redefinition of what the title role could be. Wilde gave a very physical performance, certainly some of his actions transgressed well beyond the bounds of acceptable in pure period terms (patting Lady Billows on the bum for instance at the end), but it made for a delightfully funny performance. You were also rather sad for Albert, which helps I think, egging him on to rebel. His May King costume was wonderfully over the top, with a decorated top hat making him look like a demented Pharoah in britches. In act 2 during the speeches, Wilde’s ability to convey volumes with just a twitch or a slight movement was superb. At the end, when he turns on his mother and tells her that that’s enough, he seals this with a kiss. A nice touch, and you got the distinct impression that it was the kiss more than anything else which had surprised her. Rolls also allowed Albert to act on his attraction to Nancy (Martha Jones), giving her a big kiss to which she responded; clearly indicating that life had the potential for being complicated.

When I think of Mrs Herring, I still see Frances MacCafferty’s hilariously monstrous and selfish creation. Clarissa Meek was in fact rather more serious, her portrayal of Mrs Herring was all tightly drawn in and bound up, full of anxious edge, not innately funny but a wonderful foil for Wilde’s Albert. She was wonderful in the last act with a magnificent display of bottled up dismay at Albert's demise. 

Charles Rice made a charismatic Sid; he has a lovely baritone voice and used it well, bringing out Sid’s character as a charming chancer. Rice is a very watchable singer without ever pulling focus in an ensemble. He was ably partnered by Martha Jones’s redoubtable Nancy, again well sung and brim full of character. The pair’s love scene, with Wilde crouched under the counter below them, was one of the delights of the show.

Anna-Clare Monk made a nicely daffy Miss Wordsworth, throwing of the roles higher notes with ease. She was completely serious in the way she handled the children when teaching them their song, which made the scene all the more funny. Monk and Charles Johnston, as the vicar, developed a nice rapport. Johnston was nicely understated and a touch fey.

Richard Roberts sang the mayor with gusto and brought out the anxious edge to the character, though Roberts’s voice did have a little too much glare to it in the upper register. Timothy Dawkins was a strong Superintendant Budd. This is not a huge role, but a gift for a singer who can make the most of the character’s strong utterances (it was first played by Owen Brannigan). Dawkins clearly relished the role and made a real impression, again another fine singing actor.

The children were exemplary. Erin Hughes, as Emmie, has just completed her A-levels and Emily-Jane Thomas as Cis is a recent graduate. In the London, Tunbridge Wells and Snape they are paired with treble Benedict Munden as Harry (other locations have other singers in this role, including Anna-Clare Monk’s son). The three formed a great comic act and were a delight. I was pleased to note the ETO included in the programme book biographies for the trebles in the production, a nice point which does not always happen.

When things turn serious in act 3, the cast delivered a nicely poised and well paced account of Britten's beautiful passacaglia, a moment of serious beauty when no-one is sending anything up.

One curiosity of the production was the rather over reliance on gusts of artificial fog, I’m not sure why. But this apart the comedy flowed freely and naturally, with the laughs coming from character and the singers forming a finely honed ensemble. This is something that will grow further as the run progresses and you feel that the later performances might be even more special.

The performance was done without surtitles which is admirable, and generally the diction was adequate though not always superb. But then, I am not sure that the acoustic of the Linbury Theatre were entirely sympathetic and the sound of the orchestra seemed a little more present than would be ideal.

In the pit, Michael Rosewell conducted with care and attention. He clearly knows and loves the piece, but ensure that Britten’s finely tuned engine ran smoothly and sympathetically. The Aurora Orchestra were on good form and played Britten’s score with elan.

There are further performances of at the Linbury Theatre on 6 October and 10 October and then the production tours to Cambridge, Exeter, Tunbridge Wells, Harrogate, Bath, Snape Maltings, Malvern and Buxton. See the ETO website for details.

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