Saturday 13 January 2024

Eavesdropping on their dramas: Opera North's 'in the round' production Britten's Albert Herring

Britten: Albert Herring - Claire Pascoe, Dafydd Jones - Opera North (Photo: Tom Arber)
Britten: Albert Herring - Claire Pascoe, Dafydd Jones - Opera North (Photo: Tom Arber) 

Britten: Albert Herring; Judith Howarth, Heather Shipp, Amy Freston, William Dazeley, Paul Nilon, Richard Mosley-Evans, Dominic Sedgwick, Dafydd Jones, Katie Bray, Claire Pascoe, Rosa Sparks Willow Bell, Oliver Mason, director: Giles Havergal/Elaine Tyler-Hall, conductor: Garry Walker; Opera North at the Howard Assembly Room

A wonderfully involving revival of Giles Havergal's intimate, in the round production of Britten's comedy brings out the work's humanity

Britten's Albert Herring was written as a relatively portable chamber opera for the English Opera Group. Famously premiered at Glyndebourne in 1947, when John Christie evidently told people he didn't like it, the work has generally been performed in medium to large size theatres. When Giles Havergal directed the work for Opera North in 2013, it was performed not in the Grand Theatre, Leeds, but in the smaller Howard Assembly Room.

The production returned to the Howard Assembly Room on 12 January 2024 revived by Elaine Tyler-Hall, conducted by Garry Walker with Judith Howarth as Lady Billows, Heather Shipp as Florence Pike, Amy Freston as Miss Wordsworth, William Dazeley as Mr Gedge, Paul Nilon as Mr Upfold, Richard Mosley-Evans as Sid, Dominic Sedgwick as Sid, Dafydd Jones as Albert Herring, Katie Bray as Nancy, Claire Pascoe as Mrs Herring, Rosa Sparks as Emmie Spashett, Willow Bell and Oliver Mason as Cissie Woodger and Harold Wood (alternating with Lucy Eatock and Dougie Sadgrove). Designs were by Leslie Travers, lighting by John Bishop and movement by Tim Claydon.

The Howard Assembly Room is a rectangular space with a gallery on three sides. For this production, the orchestra was at the end of the space, the action in the centre of the room with the audience on three sides. There was no set, as such, everything was created out of boxes which were re-arranged and re-configured by the cast during scene changes. Instead of looking at the production through a proscenium, the audience surrounded it, creating a sense of intimacy. Yet Havergal did not simply make it seem as if we were eavesdropping, though largely naturalistic there were imaginative extra touches to the drama, such as the end of the first scene where the village worthies, including Lady Billows, launched into a dance to celebrate their solution to the conundrum of the Queen of the May.

Britten: Albert Herring - Judith Howarth, Heather Shipp - Opera North (Photo: Tom Arber)
Britten: Albert Herring - Judith Howarth, Heather Shipp - Opera North (Photo: Tom Arber) 

The effect on the music, of this sense of smaller scale, was to bring greater clarity and definition. For all it is a comedy, Albert Herring is a complex work, musically, and moments such as the nonet in Act Three, when the worthies think that Albert is dead, really benefited from this clarity.

Dramatically, this was a very human production. There was still that element of caricature about the characters, but we saw them closer too and felt them as people. Judith Howarth's Lady Billows was less of a termagant, whilst at the end of the opera when Dafydd Jones' Albert said "That's enough Mum", he also gave her an an affectionate kiss.

Welsh tenor Dafydd Jones made a very buttoned up, self-contained Albert, yet Jones also conveyed the sense of Albert looking at the world from outside, his nose pressed to the glass. You warmed to him, the feeling, in Act One, that he was tightly bottled up and the way his near paralysis at the fete, in Act Two, unwound with the rum. Yet his break-out moment at the end was relatively understated, simply a young man learning to sow his wild oats. And throughout, Jones engaged and charmed.

The seven old characters surrounding Albert, the six village worthies and his mother, can be played by singers of virtually any age, but I loved they way Opera North had cast them from older singers of about the age the characters might be expected to be, and three of them (Amy Freston, Claire Pascoe and Richard Mosley-Evans) are regular members of the Opera North chorus.

Britten: Albert Herring - Katie Bray, Dominic Sedgwick - Opera North (Photo: Tom Arber)
Britten: Albert Herring - Katie Bray, Dominic Sedgwick - Opera North (Photo: Tom Arber) 

Having sung Verdi's Lady Macbeth at the Grange Festival in 2022 [see my review], there was no question of Judith Howarth's soprano lacking the dramatic chops for the role of Lady Billows. But she did not use her voice to create a powerful, dominating woman, instead her Lady B was all knowing smiles and charm, veiling powerful personality used to getting her own way. Howarth also gave the sense that this Lady B had been a bit of a goer in her day. This highlighted one of the opera's themes, the older characters turning on Albert for doing what they undoubtedly did or wished to do in their youth.

Heather Shipp made a trenchant Florence Pike, wonderfully vivid and certainly not suffering fools gladly, her 'country virgins' moment was priceless. Claire Pascoe's Mrs Herring was affectionately sketched, less manipulative than I have seen yet strongly drawn. As Miss Wordsworth, Amy Freston fluttered wonderfully, completely unaware of how ineffectual she really was, including a lovely rehearsal in Act Two.

Whilst William Dazeley's vicar, Mr Gedge, did make cow-eyes at Miss Wordsworth, it was done very discreetly here, and again Dazeley created a character seemingly unaware of his lack of effect. Paul Nilon was nicely self-important as the mayor, Mr Upfold, whilst for all his retiring manner, Richard Mosley-Evans' Superintendent Budd was a strong character.

Britten: Albert Herring - Dafydd Jones - Opera North (Photo: Tom Arber)
Britten: Albert Herring - Dafydd Jones - Opera North (Photo: Tom Arber) 

Dominic Sedgwick was a warm-hearted wide-boy Sid, delighting in his stirring things up with the rum. Katie Bray's Nancy was certainly no pushover. Whilst she did gaze adoringly at him, there was a strong vein of character too and a sense of sly wit. Rosa Sparks made a lively, personable Emmie with two members of the Opera North Children's Chorus, Willow Bell and Oliver Mason as Cissie and Harold.

Garry Walker and the members of the orchestra of Opera North drew out the chamber beauties of Britten's score with no need to fill a large auditorium. All 13 musicians (plus two off stage) were individuals, creating some magical effects.

Britten: Albert Herring - Amy Freston, Heather Shipp, Paul Nilon, Judith Howarth, William Dazeley - Opera North (Photo: Tom Arber)
Britten: Albert Herring - Amy Freston, Heather Shipp, Paul Nilon, Judith Howarth, William Dazeley - Opera North (Photo: Tom Arber

I still love Albert Herring in a proscenium theatre, but this was a wonderfully involving reinventions with all the characters full rounded as we eavesdropped on their dramas.

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