wed 19/06/2024

Albert Herring, Opera North review - immersive and intimate fun | reviews, news & interviews

Albert Herring, Opera North review - immersive and intimate fun

Albert Herring, Opera North review - immersive and intimate fun

A gifted cast enliven Britten’s comedy of English village life

Reluctant good boy: Dafydd Jones as Albert in Opera North's Albert HerringTom Arber

Reviving Giles Havergal’s 2013 production from its “Festival of Britten” of that year, Opera North have an Albert Herring that’s both immersive and intimate, to quote their own publicity.

Immersive because it was designed specifically for the refurbished Howard Assembly Room inside the Grand Theatre buildings in Leeds, with the audience mainly on two sides of the long performance space, with a few at the narrow end furthest from the 13-piece orchestra; intimate because it’s all very close-up, the action taking place often only a few feet away from us. (It isn’t going to tour, unlike the other two shows in the Opera North winter season, Così fan tutte and a double bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and Rachmaninov’s Aleko - though a filmed version will be free on OperaVision later in the year). You can see every detail of the singers’ faces all the time – and even smell the fruit as they bring out the greengroceries for Mrs Herring’s shop – the entr’actes are beautifully played and they fill the time by having the cast re-assemble the moveable elements that make up Leslie Travers’ cleverly designed set.

There’s a classy team of actor-singers for this iteration, under the care of Elaine Tyler-Hall, and only William Dazeley, as the vicar, and Katie Bray, as Nancy, are there from the cast of a decade ago. The setting, in reality, isn’t ideal for comic opera and everything has to be carefully choreographed so that the performers don’t spend too long with their backs to any particular section of the audience (an important factor, as the room’s acoustic does not provide the kind of audibility that a real in-the-round theatre space does). Movement director Tim Claydon created visual complements to the fugal ensembles, which are still a neat touch.

Judith Howarth as Lady Billows and Heather Shipp as Florence Pike in Opera North's Albert Herring cr Tom ArberBut the essential requirement always was to let real character players loose on the wonderful caricatures of English village life created by Eric Crozier and Benjamin Britten in the piece, and there this is a real success, perhaps even more so than in 2013.

Best of all was to see Judith Howarth as Lady Billows (pictured left), the grande dame of the little community which finds it has no girls suitably innocent to be crowned Queen of the May. The last time I remember her on Opera North’s stage was as Cressida in Walton’s Troilus and Cressida years ago, and that was memorable for completely different reasons, but there is that sheen in her voice that gives an almost surprisingly heroic quality to her role, rather than merely one of entitled bombast. I liked her pronunciation of “gels” (for “girls”), and she’s up for a little bit of dancing, too. Heather Shipp, on the other hand, as her housekeeper Florence Pike, is such an instinctive comedienne that she comes close to stealing the show with her self-important busybody-ing.

Dominic Sedgwick as Sid in Opera North's Albert Herring cr Tom ArberDafydd Jones is the new Albert, making his debut with the company, and he made the role his own, with a voice that’s entirely on top of it and a repertoire of facial expressions for the reluctant good boy. Everyone else has caught the personality they’re after and made it a real turn: Amy Freston as Miss Wordsworth the schoolteacher, Paul Nilon as the mayor, Richard Mosley-Evans as Superintendent Budd (really a village bobby type), Claire Pascoe as Mrs Herring, Albert’s mother. Dominic Sedgwick (pictured above) teams up with Katie Bray skilfully to create Sid and Nancy, the resourceful young lovers of the tale, and Rosa Sparks is convincing as Emmie, leading the team of talented youngsters.

So the revival is nicely cast and a real success, Garry Walker conducting with a care for balance and inter-weaving the ensemble lines. Some see all kinds of sub-texts in Albert Herring, but I prefer to enjoy it just as it is – not laying it on too thick (as Albert puts it right at the end), and Giles Havergal’s approach does just that. You can understand why Opera North wanted to get some more mileage out of it, of course, but it’s a pity that it won’t be seen by more people – or anyone who can’t get to Leeds. I hope they haven’t thrown away the mainstage version of 2002, which would be well worth bringing back some time.

Some see all kinds of sub-texts in 'Albert Herring', but I prefer to enjoy it just as it is – not laying it on too thick


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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