Britten - Albert Herring

Opéra Comique, Paris, Saturday February 28 2009

Conductor: Laurence Equilbey. Production: Richard Brunel. Sets: Marc Lainé. Costumes: Claire Risterucci. Lighting: Mathias Roche. Albert Herring: Allan Clayton. Lady Billows: Nancy Gustafson. Florence Pike: Felicity Palmer. Miss Wordsworth: Ailish Tynan. Mr. Gedge: Christopher Purves. Mr. Upfold: Simeon Esper. Superintendant Budd: Andrew Greenan. Sid: Leigh Melrose. Nancy: Julia Riley. Mrs Herring: Hanna Schaer. Musicians of the Orchestra of the Opéra de Rouen. Members of the Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine. Coproduction between the Opéra Comique and the Opéra de Rouen Haute-Normandie.

I wasn’t brought up on opera, or brought to it in any structured way. So as it happens, the first two operas I got to know well were Les mamelles de Tirésias, a favourite of a family of Swiss intellectuals I met in Lausanne, and Albert Herring. I was called in, as an undergraduate, to play in the pit for Albert when the bass player sprained her thumb, and thus found myself sight-reading the part at the dress rehearsal. It was with a degree of horror that, on turning the page during Albert’s “coronation” ceremony, I read the word “solo” above a mass of busy black rising into the tenor clef…

I hadn’t seen Albert Herring since, and was glad when it appeared on this year’s schedule at the Opéra Comique. This production, from Rouen, is modern, ingenious, good-natured and entertaining, though with some oddities possibly explained, at least in part, by its being a French take on English eccentricities (extravagant millinery, garish dresses…).

The setting is more or less the present day. Loxford is modern Suburbia, with rows of little white houses (models on the stage apron) supervised by a security camera attached to a flagpole. As the curtain rises, Florence Pike is mowing the (artificial) lawn before flopping into an electrically-operated armchair while, through a plate-glass window, we see Lady B pruning a plant, in wellingtons and a giant straw hat. The time is announced by a speaking clock (there are various, faintly menacing effects of this kind, hinting at Big-Brother-like surveillance) and the list of candidates for May Queen is a Power-Point projection interrupted (Florence Pike wields a remote control) by security videos disqualifying them all. The grocery shop is a small, brightly lit supermarket, and Sid doesn’t whistle under Nancy’s window but beeps her on her mobile. The name “Herring” spelt out in giant, luminous, letters serves to announce the “winner”, then as a shop sign, and later, on the ground during the wonderful act-three threnody, as a “tomb.” The ceremony was a great comic set-piece and clearly there hadn't been time to adjust all the arrangements: the beautifully bewildered Albert wore a tiara and a sash still marked "May Queen" as he gawped into the TV camera.

The lines were sometimes changed to suit the staging. When they were not, there were moments when the action seemed obscure: why did Albert "light the gas" in the garden, making a fire among the model houses?

Nancy Gustafson seemed, in advance, an odd choice for Lady Billows and in the event, to me at any rate, the oddness was confirmed. She was no older than the assembled worthies, so telling them they were too young to remember past customs was as strange as her using language like (I quote from memory, not having the libretto to hand here) “M’ father shot the brute in ’56.” She was dotty rather than domineering and it was hard to understand her status in the town. Vocally she seemed to be having an off night, struggling at the top, though her “speech” went well.

The rest of the cast was strong, in particular Allan Clayton, perfect in both character and voice as a wide-eyed Albert; Leigh Melrose’s cheeky, sexy Sid; the sonorous vicar; the excellent, hilarious Miss Wordsworth; and of course Felicity Palmer’s experienced Florence Pike.

With greater clarity and accuracy, the musicians would have made the score seem less chaotic. but that didn't ruin the evening's fun, and I was pleased to see Albert Herring scoring such a hit with the Parisian public, few of whom, I guess, would have heard it before, even on disc.

Comments

  1. I just saw this on SkyArts--incredibly disappointing and, well, bewildering to say the least. It was a good cast (no reason why Nancy Gustafson shouldn't be a fine Lady Billows---previous incumbents have come with a similarly heavyweight pedigree) but they were fighting a losing battle from the start; the director seemed to have no idea that this was a comic opera. I don't mean gags and schticks so much as any warmth, humanity or a sense that, unusually for Britten, there is any escape from "the human condition" other than death.The Committee were undifferentiated and , without apparent motivation, just came across as nasty. Sid and Nancy were about as unconvincing as examples of fresh, punchy working class kids as it's possible to be and Albert seemed always to stand outside his torment rather than being in the grasp of it---nothing to do with the singers:all down to the leaden, controlling, overly" conceptual"(or maybe just misconceived) staging. Conducting was also wholly unidiomatic---the chords landing in all the wrong places ,completely disrupting the sung lines and throwing the whole thing out of frame (another contributing factor in the low comedy- count). Perhaps the opera seemed like alien corn to the creative team, hence their determination to give it the deconstructionist makeover?I know the opera travels and even translates --I've seen a couple of very good productions in Germany where all the "darker" elements came out without the heavy-handed hammering it got here. And was it just me or was there a whole added percussion solo to pad out the search in Act III? Hmmmm.

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