Monday, 12 December 2011

Albert Herring @ RNCM

Britten was always semi-autobiographical with his operas and Albert Herring is no exception.  In addition to its setting in a ficticious East Anglian town (where he lived), the links to Britten himself are clear.  Herring represents the triumph of the outsider, the young Albert, in the face of his overbearing mother and local community, just as Britten, a closet homosexual, was rising to prominence, rebelling against society's expectations of sexuality and experiencing life outside his hometown.  Unlike his other operas, however, this is a light-hearted comedic piece.  It also represents the triumph of youth, so it's telling that this was only his third full opera, composed at the relatively young age of thirty-four.  As such, with its themes of youthful rebellion and Albert's drunken experiences with alcohol, Herring proved a suitable choice of opera for the student singers of the RNCM.

The initial impression came from the set - gloriously ostentatious, the attention to detail (in the shop scenes especially) was staggering and continued through the costumes.  Designed by Lara Booth, she cleverly contrasted Victorian gothic architecture with elements of art nouveau to reflect the intellectual war of the generations.  The religious overtones of Lady Billows' cathedral-like dining room were obvious, yet the imposing stained-glass windows contained cheeky references to fruit which were later mirrored in the colourful trees of the banquet scene.  The only downside to the complex set was the prolonged changes between each scene, though each was a complete transformation.

The narrative of the opera is simple, centered very much on characterisation - Eric Crozier, the librettist, wrote character sketches initally before embarking on the full libretto.  This production was performed by two casts on alternative nights - I was lucky enough to see both which put their contrasting interpretations into sharp focus.  This was no more apparent than with the two Alberts.  Thomas Morss was quietly brooding, allowing the orchestra to speak his character's mind, revealing his psychological turmoil through the music.  Elgan Thomas, on the other hand, was more outspoken with his piercing and characterful tenor.  In neither case was Albert the 'simpleton' he's described as by the adults in the first Act, both delivering accomplished performances.

It has to be said that diction - of paramount importance to this form of storytelling - was exceptional across the board.  Particularly impressive however, was Eleanor Garside's Miss Wordsworth, who's diction was crystal clear, with enthusiastic characterisation and great chemistry with Jonathan Alley's Mr Gedge the vicar.  Other performances also stood out - Jenny Carson was charming as the girlish Emmie; Heather Lowe commanded the stage with authority as Florence Pike; Andrea Tweedale was wonderfully amusing as the uptight Lady Billows; and Daniel Shelvey's rich baritone was well suited to the flirtatious romance of Sid.  The two orchestras struggled at times with Britten's demanding score, but his colourful orchestration shone through nonetheless. 

This was a triumphant production, with comic acting (such as the hilarious banquet scene) fusing with sincere and technically accomplished singing (the final Act's threnody especially).  Every student involved was remarkably talented - clearly the future of opera is in safe hands.


Watch: The opera is performed this week on Tuesday 13th, Thursday 15th and Saturday 17th of December.