Albert Herring might be a bit of a favourite at Opera Australia, but it isn’t exactly one of Benjamin Britten’s most well-known operas.
It’s essentially a light comedy set in a parochial English society reminiscent of something out of The Vicar of Dibley or even Downton Abbey and tells the story of Albert, a simple shopkeeper’s son, selected to be the ‘May King’ at a local Festival for his virtue. After being held on so tight a leash by his strict mother and being held up as a model of youthful morality and decency, Albert rebels Lohan/Cyrus/Bieber-style and goes temporarily off the rails. There’s an ensemble of hilarious characters and some great hijinks, but the music is quintessentially Britten; innovative, with a melodic and harmonic freedom that flows along with the action onstage. Perhaps the laughs have driven focus from the music, but it’s a work that clearly stands alongside his best.
Exactly why Opera Australia decided to drag this 1976 production out of storage is a bit of a mystery, but it’s clearly a strong production and a suitable celebration for what would have been Britten’s 100th birthday. It probably also has something to do with the fact that both Kanen Breen and Jacqui Dark (two of Opera Australia’s most loved stars and finest comic performers) were available. Unfortunately, on opening night both had been struck down by the flu that seems to have taken out most of Sydney this winter.
Thankfully, with Brad Cooper and Jane Ede in Breen and Dark’s places, opening night went on without a hitch. Cooper’s Albert is as naïve as you’d hope and his singing is crystal clear, negotiating Britten’s more difficult passages perfectly. For a debut as a principal artist for Opera Australia, Cooper’s performance is confident, skillful and exciting. Ede’s Lady Billows is suitably uptight, scowling and hilarious. Ede sounds fantastic (despite having a cold herself) and she has a physical presence that almost makes you forget the fact that she’s far too young for the role. It says a lot, not only of these two, but of rehearsal director Matthew Barclay that there wasn’t a missed beat on opening night – vocal or otherwise.
The surrounding cast is uniformly strong. Opera Australia has plenty of fine principal singers who are always willing and able to dive into comedy head-first. Dominica Matthews and Conal Coad win the most laughs as Florence and Superintendent Budd, because their timing is the best and their characters are the most clearly defined.
In the pit, conductor Anthony Legge leads an orchestra of 13 in an expressive reading of the score. The smaller orchestra size means that there’s nowhere for any of the players to hide and that the finest nuances of each part are easily detectable.
The costumes and sets by Roger Butlin are detailed, functional and authentic, but they are starting to show their age. The set was actually built in 1976 and it’s a little disconcerting how much it creaks as it rotates. Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini has said this is almost certainly the last time this production will be seen, and it is clearly time that it’s kindly laid to rest. It’s a fine production, but it is showing its age and seems a little out of place in a season high on production values.
It’s very unlikely that Albert Herring will be performed in Sydney again anytime soon, so it’s worth a visit for that reason. The music and performances are fantastic, but this isn’t exactly a fresh approach.