Monday 26 June 2017

Comedy of character: Britten's Albert Herring at the Grange Festival

Britten: Albert Herring - The Grange Festival - Kitty Whately, Richard Pinkstone, Adrian Thompson (photo Robert Workman)
Britten: Albert Herring - The Grange Festival - Kitty Whately, Richard Pinkstone, Adrian Thompson (photo Robert Workman)
Britten Albert Herring; Richard Pinkstone, Orla Boylan, Clarissa Meek, Anna Gillingham, Alexander Robin-Baker, Adrian Thompson, Andri Bjorn Robertsson, Timothy Nelson, Kitty Whately, Kathleen Wilkinson, dir: John Copley, cond: Steuart Bedford; The Grange Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on June 25 2017
Star rating: 4.0

A real comedy of character, strong characterisations depicted with affectionate warmth

Britten: Albert Herring - The Grange Festival - Orla Boylan (photo Robert Workman)
Orla Boylan (photo Robert Workman)
The Grange Festival's final new production of the Summer, which debuted on Sunday 25 June 2017,  brought together a remarkable range of ages and talents for Britten's comedy Albert Herring. Directed by John Copley (whose directing career spans over 50 years) and conducted by Steuart Bedford (who conducted the premiere of Britten's Death in Venice at Aldeburgh), the opera featured Richard Pinkstone (who is currently studying at the Royal College of Music) in the title role, plus Orla Boylan as Lady Billows, Clarissa Meek as Florence Pike, Anna Gillingham as Miss Wordsworth, Alexander Robin-Baker as Mr Gedge, Adrian Thompson as Mr Upfold, Andri Bjorn Robertsson as Superintendent Budd, Timothy Nelson as Sid, Kitty Whately as Nancy, Kathleen Wilkinson as Mrs Herring, plus Emily Vine, Catriona Hewitson and Jack Stone, with the Aurora Orchestra. Set designs were by Tim Reed, costumes by Prue Handley and lighting by Kevin Treacy.

John Copley took a traditional view of the opera, an early 20th century setting with acutely observed detail and a sense of vivid theatre, Copley introduced no directorial pensées and concentrated on created a real comedy of character with a poignant sense of seriousness of purpose at its heart.

We opened in Lady Billows' (Orla Boylan) neo-Gothic mansion down-stage, and for the scene change to the greengrocers shop, members of  the Grange Festival's ensemble (dressed as servants) changed the scene before our eyes. For each of the scene changes, Copley and Reed grasped the theatre's limited technical facilities as a virtue and gave us virtuoso moments of stagecraft. The act two change from the marquee to the greengrocers was particularly notable.

Britten: Albert Herring - The Grange Festival - Kitty Whately, Timothy Nelson (photo Robert Workman)
Kitty Whately, Timothy Nelson (photo Robert Workman)
Richard Pinkstone's Albert started out quiet and controlled, but certainly not too dim and there was a nice sense of undercurrents of something like rebellion already running through his performance in Act One. Pinkstone has an engaging stage presence, so his tipsy Act Three solo was particularly notable and enjoyable. As Albert started relaxing under the influence of the rum in Act Two, Pinkstone allowed his performance to become more animated, and the final scene was a brilliant mixture of comedy and seriousness. Pinkstone really brought out the feeling that Albert really was finding himself.

Also central to the opera, of course, is the character of Lady Billows. Orla Boylan, fresh from her performances in the title role of Turandot with Opera North, brought a powerful yet subtle vocal instrument to bear on a role which was written for just such voice (the first Lady Billows, Joan Cross, was a notable Sieglinde and Marschallin). But what was really remarkable was the physical transformation, Boylan really incarnated the old battle-axe, elderly and not walking well (and using this as a weapon). Boylan looked and sounded perfectly in character, and only escaped when, halfway across the stage to take her bow, she suddenly changed from Lady Billows back to Orla Boylan. This Lady Billows was not quite as vicious as some, but was constantly dissatisfied and disappointed with life, with a wonderful array of facial expressions commenting on the activity around her. Recent performances of the opera have seen the character (and its vocal qualities) re-invented somewhat, and it was lovely to see (and hear) Lady Billows returning to Britten's original conception in such a brilliantly theatrical manner.

The rest of the village worthies were a fine mixture of youth and experience, each creating a strongly etched character. Clarissa Meek was a deceptively quiet, down-trodden Florence Pike who showed her real character when in the second scene she relished the amazing array of village gossip about the failed virgins. Alexander Robin-Baker was a cherubic-faced Mr Gedge, hiding sententiousness and an  unhealthy interest in Miss Wordsworth. Adrian Thompson's Mr Upfold was familiar from other productions, but welcome nonetheless. Anna Gillingham made a charming Miss Upfold, taking the character at face value and making her dim nature notes seem delightful. Andri Bjorn Robertsson was a characterful Superintendent Budd, a bit dim and obsessive about detail.

To these we must add Albert's mother, Mrs Herring. Kathleen Wilkinson played her as slightly more demure than usual, her treatment of Albert had less overt comedy about it and Mrs Herring's grief in Act Three was entirely serious (I can remember other productions where this is made very, very funny). Though the worthies were all strongly etched characters, they were people too and in Act Three their reaction to Albert's death was entirely serious to that the opening scenes had a poignant note of grief about them, with the comedy coming from Albert's re-entry rather than the worthies' behaviour.

Contrasted with these were the younger people, who encouraged Albert on. Kitty Whately was a delight as ever as Nancy, singing with warm tones but not without sharpness when Sid needed to be controlled and perhaps appreciating that Albert finds her attractive too. Timothy Nelson was a warmly sympathetic Sid, a trifle less bumptious than usual and with some beautifully sung moments. His Act Three description of the bustle in the village was finely done, whilst Nelson and Whately really joined together to create a believable couple.

The children were also vividly etched, with each Catriona Hewitson, Emily Vine and Jack Stone, relishing the small solos Britten gives the characters, as well as the vivid comedy of the rehearsal scene with Miss Worthsworth in Act Two.
Britten: Albert Herring - The Grange Festival - Adrian Thompson, Clarissa Meek, Richard Pinkstone, Orla Boylan(photo Robert Workman)
Britten: Albert Herring - The Grange Festival - Adrian Thompson, Clarissa Meek, Richard Pinkstone, Orla Boylan(photo Robert Workman)

In the pit Steuart Bedford paced the opera admirably, and drew vivid playing from the members of the Aurora Orchestra. Though the piece only uses 13 instruments, there was nothing reduced about the effect that Bedford and his players created. And the instrumental interludes were particularly fine.

This was a notable achievement, full of strong characters affectionately drawn and working together to create a superb ensemble piece, with very high musical values. The production runs until 7 July 2017, but I do hope that we see it again.

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