mon 22/07/2024

Albert Herring, The Grange Festival review - playing it straight yields classic comedy gold | reviews, news & interviews

Albert Herring, The Grange Festival review - playing it straight yields classic comedy gold

Albert Herring, The Grange Festival review - playing it straight yields classic comedy gold

A true ensemble has a focused ball under veterans John Copley and Steuart Bedford

Richard Pinkstone's Albert Herring egged on to speechify by Adrian Thompson's Mr Upfold, Clarissa Meek's Florence Pike and Orla Boylan's Lady BillowsAll images by Robert Workman

Perfect comedies for the country-house opera scene? Mozart's Figaro and Così, Strauss's Ariadne - and Britten's Albert Herring, now 70 years and a few days old, but as ageless as the rest. With the passing of time it's ever more obvious that this satire of provincial East Anglian tricks and manners also has universal appeal and stands with the best.

Eric Crozier was surely Britten's finest librettist once Auden stepped aside after Paul Bunyan, his Da Ponte or Hofmannsthal. The sharp wit of text and music needs absolute focus and playing it as straight as possible. It got both from a splendid ensemble under John Copley - wisely not messing with the work already done by composer and librettist on sense of place and character, offering only a slight update from the original 1900 - and of another veteran who knew Britten and Pears well, Steuart Bedford, in the pit.

What extraordinary work from the Aurora Orchestra: from the vivid acidic bustling of Florence Pike, housekeeeper to Loxford eminence Lady Billows, you'd think a full symphony orchestra was at work, not just the 13 chamber-opera players. I'm reminded of tenor Ben Johnson who, when asked on the radio if Britten wrote especially well for the tenor voice, responded that he wrote superbly for all voices and all instruments. The harp alone seems to do the work of three or four; the woodwind enhance the Shakespearean pathos of the later scenes, especially when Britten writes his first ghostly operatic duet for alto flute and bass clarinet.

Richard Pinkstone as Albert Herring

In perfect synch with their instrumental colleagues throughout, the singers are both magnificent soloists and - again as becomes especially apparent in Act 3 - team players. Richard Pinkstone gives us a different, and utterly credible, take on shop-boy Albert, the good boy voted May King since all the village girls are, in the words of the chief moralist, "not virgins but trollops". Tied to his widowed mum's apron strings but clearly strong enough to break loose from the first, this Albert has the operatic-tenor heft for the will to freedom in the voice from his very first scene, rather than the usual softer grain of the lyric-character choral scholar. The emancipation sees him very much in control (pictured above with Kitty Whately and Adrian Thompson); again, it's completely believable.

Around him the standard-bearers of provincial propriety lurk vulture-like, but even though they're types, we've all met them - even Orla Boylan's incredible transformation from a candid Tatyana and Sieglinde of yore into dragon dowager (pictured below) splendidly observed in the askance disapproval with which she views all and sundry and the constant distracted fiddling at the fete: part Dame Edna, part Geraldine James's Lady Maud in Blott on the Landscape, but never overplaying it and unleashing all her dramatic-soprano power when she needs it. Her accomplices include Clarissa Meek's gaunt Miss Pike - another classy lesson in letting the music and the words do a lot of the work - the toothy-radiant Miss Wordsworth of Anna Gillingham, very funny in the fete rehearsal with her pupils (Jack Stone, Emily Vine and Catriona Hewitson) and the clarion pomposity of Adrian Thompson's Mayor. Andri Björn Róbertsson's slow-witted Plod and Kathleen Wilkinson's Mum don't play it for laughs, but the show is none the worse for that.

Orla Boylan as Lady Billows

Britten's parodies are always done with love and respect, so that they can end up being surprisingly moving - in the first place, the Reverend Gedge's homily on virtue, radiantly sung by Alexander Robin-Baker. Vocally, he's a more virile baritone than the more sensitive Timothy Nelson, a rather Liederish butcher's lad Sid in his first scene, but Nelson looks the part and is charmingly paired with the inimitable Kitty Whately as the pretty-compassionate Nancy (pictured below). Her Act Three aria of repentance, punctuated by rondo-like reappearances of the music for the hunt of the missing Albert, kicks off a final chain of surprisingly deep set pieces, culminating in the remarkable Passacaglia where all the adults bar the putatively dead one sing about mortality in a queasy mix of pathos and bathos (again, Mozart and Da Ponte couldn't have done it better).

Kitty Whately and Timothy Nelson in Albert Herring

The fun of the fete to crown the one true virgin works as brilliantly as ever in Copley's skilful staging and the perfect designs of Tim Reed, Prue Handley and Kevin Treacy, whose lighting effects a storm-brewing sunset transition to the poignant nocturne of the following scene. There's a lot of manoeuvring of realistic stage sets - presumably by the resident Grange chorus, wordless in this opera - but it's done smoothly so as not to mess with the superb instrumental interludes.

An evening of unalloyed pleasure, then, all the better for the comfortable seats with bags of leg room in the theatre - Grange Park's previous incumbents had taken all the extant fittings away - and the opening up of the view down to the lake, with fresh possibilities of walking to it. The only blot on the landscape is the champagne-bar extension blocking a view of the house's neoclassical portico. On the evidence of my first visit to the "new" Grange, though, artistic standards are at the highest level; this is the best show I've seen there since the daring shot at Prokofiev's The Gambler a decade ago, and a comic complement to the equally superlative Death in Venice at Garsington, also conducted by Bedford.

In perfect synch with their instrumental colleagues, the singers are both magnificent soloists and team players


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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