Albert Herring, Britten’s comic masterpiece, gleefully revels in an operatic middle ground. A whimsical plot that is set against a surprisingly complex score, Britten’s provincial chamber piece teases the lines between comedy and tragedy, sympathy and satire and the clashing authorities of nearly seventy years of critical opinion. Directors Peter Thickett and Frederick Waxman’s production rightfully maintains the delightful mutability of the piece, combining real, laugh-out-loud moments with just the right dash of uneasy social tension. The mix that is the hallmark of every great comedy.
Composed after the serious opera The Rape of Lucretia, Britten returned to his quaint Suffolk landscape for his next project, exploring the potential of a small 13 piece orchestral force and the plot of Maupassant’s Le Rosier de Madame Husson to fuel the imaginative caper that would become Albert Herring. In a production that remains largely true to Britten’s original vision, a talented cast of singers and a vibrant chamber orchestra set about to crown the inaugural May King after the indecency of the village’s girls denies them such honour. The brilliant comedic partnership between a suitably imperious Lady Billows (Margaret Marchetti) and acerbic Florence Pike (Sian Millett) makes for a wonderfully idiosyncratic performance – in an act that maximises laughs. Enter Albert Herring (Maximilian Lawrie), the haplessly adorable, yet awkwardly reluctant chosen one. The perpetual third wheel to the flirtatious relationship between Sid (Ivo Almond) and Nancy (Lila Chrisp), Albert can only look on as he is pushed towards social embarrassment on the grandest of scales. Britten here mobilises his trademark theme of the loss of innocence to great effect, as comedic forces combine to give Albert his first taste of rebellion.
It combines real, laugh-out-loud moments with just the right dash of uneasy social tension
Every comedy needs strong characters, and this cast does not disappoint. Almond and Chrisp showcase particularly exciting performances, their blossoming relationship euphemistically enhanced by the suggestiveness of the teasing orchestra. Marchetti’s voice swells in the grand surroundings of St. Peter’s chapel to an astonishing sonorousness, as the orchestra perfectly executes the musical jokes embedded in Britten’s score. Indeed, the echoing acoustics of the chapel do nothing to muffle the clear diction of the performers, who ensure that a real sense of character is inherent both physically and vocally. Of particular note is the clever use of scene changes, in which character is wittily maintained, while Britten’s remarkable interludes play in the background. Set and costume design add just the right sense of character and place; a suggestion of charm and nostalgia without overpowering the theatrical space.
This was a delightful opera that I went to watch on a rainy, cold, winter’s evening, whose unsuppressed cheer left me glowing. It is unlike Britten’s other operas in the sheer force of its vibrancy and the pleasure it gives. In the corner of St. Peters, amidst a week of deadlines, lingering remnants of fresher’s flu and the notorious fifth week blues, this most charming of operas that will leave you with a smile on your face.
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