Director Christopher Rolls plays with the straightest of bats in this new production of Albert Herring for English Touring Opera. To get an idea of his approach, you need do little more than read Eric Crozier’s libretto, with its detailed stage instructions, for that is pretty much how the production plays out, which will be music to the ears and balm to the souls of many operagoers who despise directors tinkering with their favourite operatic fare. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen a production of anything which is so faithful to the stage direction, the costumes or the spirit of the opera. So why did it fail to fully ignite?
The trouble begins with the programme note, which promises that ‘Herring is very, very funny’. It undoubtedly is – Britten and Crozier drew razor-sharp caricatures in their Loxford community – but the laughs just didn’t flow as frequently or furiously as in other productions. Perhaps Herring is a gentler type of comedy for today’s audiences and a period setting, for all the terrifically detailed direction and interplay, puts them at a greater distance from the humour. I also suspect that problems over diction and the (im)balance between pit and stage at the Linbury Studio had something to do with it, but more on that anon.
The programme note also promised some sort of psychological insight regarding Neil Irish’s set, likening it to a cage as ‘a symbolic structure Albert feels he’s living in’, as an exhibit or a curiosity to be gawped at and ridiculed. This ideal has real potential, but the set simply struck me as designed for ease of touring; it’s simple and adaptable, the cast acting as stagehands between scenes. There is a darker element to the tale and Rolls explores this to some extent. Albert appears to be fed up with his lot from the beginning. He sets up the grocery during the interlude and we are shown his frustration at his lot before he’s sung a word. Have a nice peach? The sexual tension simmering between Sid and Nancy was gently done, but Albert himself has clearly been smitten with Nancy for some time. Is Albert more an innocent who needs Sid to plant the seeds of temptation in his path? Witnessing Sid’s encounter with Nancy should be some sort of sexual awakening for Albert. The only significant change to the libretto’s stage directions comes on the closing page, when it’s not Nancy who kisses Albert ‘to his complete surprise and astonishment’, but the other way round, reinforcing the idea that his ‘night on the town’ really has released those inhibitions. Mark Wilde sang with great style and spirit as Albert, an attractive, light tenor. He was very fine at the physical comedy, playing Mrs Herring's son a little older than usual. An interesting directorial decision was to give Albert a nervous tic, established during a rear-stage appearance during the first scene. Was it, perhaps, as a counterpart to Billy Budd’s stammer? Surely Albert’s greatest handicap is his mother, but her hen-pecking is underplayed, with the result that when he finally cuts the apron strings, the impact isn’t quite as telling.
Where Rolls is absolutely correct is that what Herring, Billy Budd and Peter Grimes share in common is a forensic study of a closed community dealing (or failing to deal) with a misfit or outsider; detailed character portraits, clearly delineated in the first scene of each – caricatures in the case of Herring, boldly drawn and the kinds of characters seen in every town and every age, making it most suitable for updating. The last production I saw was Will Kerley’s at the Guildhall School, updated to the Silver Jubilee street parties of 1977 and wickedly funny. This production didn’t hit those heights, but the different setting, different venue and a different audience all had a telling impact.
There was a lot of fog drifting around the stage in the first two acts, for no apparent reason.
Some of the humour was lost through lack of audibility of the libretto. ETO didn’t employ surtitles, which is a perfectly admirable decision, but when the words fail to register, especially in a comedy, there’s something amiss. It was partly a question of poor diction in a couple of cases, but was mainly due to the singers’ words not always being heard. The award-winning Aurora Orchestra was quite brilliant under Michael Rosewell and it made one wonder afresh at the remarkable rhythmic punch of Britten’s music… and yet, considering its chamber proportions (13 players), I lost count the number of times where the singers were overwhelmed by the pit. The Linbury can be an unforgiving space acoustically and one sincerely hopes that other theatres on the tour offer a better balance, for the singers deserve better.
Much of the singing was strong. Charles Rice was a warm-voiced Sid, the cocky jack-the-lad who laces Albert’s lemonade with rum. His partnership with Martha Jones’ Nancy was one of the delights of the evening, their lovers’ interplay believable. Jones was coquettish and sympathetic to Albert’s plight. Clarissa Meek, playing Albert’s mum, was less monstrous than some, her tone occasionally dry.
Rosie Aldridge’s Florence Pike was superb, with some of the best diction of the evening, a Lady Billows in waiting, I suggest. Dressed in a trouser suit, she was presented as a younger than usual housekeeper. Jennifer Rhys-Davies had her occasionally squally Wagnerian moments and was not always comprehensible, but made a great dramatic impression as the old battleaxe Lady Billows.
Charles Johnston as the vicar, Mr Gedge, was sympathetically sung, with an obvious eye for Anna-Clare Monk’s Miss Wordsworth, the schoolteacher. Monk’s slightly brittle tone suited her prim and proper character. Richard Roberts’ occasionally forced and strident tone didn’t sit too uncomfortably with the pompous mayor he played, while the Superintendent Budd of Timothy Dawkins was a pleasing portrayal, despite weaknesses at either end of his vocal range, his fear of Lady Billows palpable.
Credit to the cast and crew for attempting production so faithful to the original spirit. I would imagine that some of the flaws (none of them truly fatal) will be ironed out through the run, particularly if audiences can hear the text more clearly.
Photographs © Richard Hubert Smith