Britten: Albert Herring

Glyndebourne on Tour

Sadler's Wells, London, 4 December 2007 3 stars

Glyndebourne on Tour: Albert HerringContemporary critical opinion of Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring suggests that what at first appears to be a comedy about the coming-of-age of a naïve village youth is actually a more ambitious moral tale about the rejection of the bourgeois social elite and their outdated sexual norms. The problem with Glyndebourne on Tour's latest performance of Albert Herring is that it conveys little of the latter, more complicated interpretation. Instead of the story of existential awakening we have come to expect – one which stands for the sexual liberation of an entire generation – Glyndebourne's latest instead tells us the tale of a disagreeable youth in search of a good night out.

Of course, there are some extremely accomplished aspects of this performance. The breathtaking sumptuousness of its scenery is one of the major reasons that Peter Hall's 1985 Festival version of Albert Herring, revised here by James Robert Carson, remains a celebrated centrepiece of the Glyndebourne repertory. During the course of the opera, the richly decorated parlour of an English country manor and a winding and cobbled market street appear before our eyes like images from the highest budget period dramas. There was even scattered applause as the Act II curtain rose on the interior of a marquee on a village green, complete with sunlit trestle tables lined with cakes and sandwiches, corsages of cut flowers, and the tiled roofs of village buildings off in the distance. In Act I, a rainstorm even passed overhead. If nothing else, the spectacle of this adaptation is guaranteed to please.

Another superb element of the performance was the liveliness of the quintet of middle-class meddlers, featuring Susan Gorton as Florence Pike, Amy Freston as Miss. Wordsworth, Robert Davies as the Vicar, Adrian Thompson as the Mayor and Lynton Black as Superintendent Budd. These five managed to bring enough idiosyncrasy to their respective roles to make them interesting, whilst at the same time not sacrificing the stereotypical foibles of their characters. Notable moments included their opening 5-part fugue 'We've made our own investigation' which remained light and buoyant despite the weight of the male voices, the closing concertante of Act I, and the ensemble's lament in Act III which gave individual voices a real chance to shine. There were some wonderful solo moments, too, including Budd's nerves when he addressed Lady Billows in Act I and Wordsworth's coaching of her singing pupils in Act II. Perhaps the subtlest musical joke was made by Adrian Thompson, whose quasi-Sprechgesang – a mixture of the powerfully sung and the provincially spoken – conveyed elegantly the social mobility of a man among his betters.

Glyndebourne on Tour: Albert HerringAmong the denizens of the elite, it was Miranda Keys as Lady Billows who seemed least convincing in her role. This was not a result of her singing, which traversed the wide tessitura called for by the score with a self-assured sense of self-inflation. Rather, in an opera which narrates the death of an older system of morals (witness the frequent chiming of the clocks, another piece of stage magic perfectly executed), the oldest member of that bygone era simply seemed too young. Her stick was obviously unnecessary, her excited hand gestures were improbable for one of her deportment, and her hair – from where I was sitting at least – was a warm shade of brown, not grey. Without these signs of age, it was hard to take Lady Billows seriously as the last bastion of a drowning social order struggling to stay afloat.

Kathleen Wilkinson, playing Albert's domineering and mercenary mother, went some of the way to portraying the matriarchal domination of the younger generation, and I particularly enjoyed her continuing and shameless interest in good, hard cash. Nonetheless, her character is from too weak a social class to represent successfully the vagaries of an elite moral order. The performance's lack of a suitably aged bourgeois figurehead represents its first departure from the seriousness which should convey the bulk of its more impassioned social critique.

Compared to this elite world of dowagers, widows, and bachelors, Jared Holt and Julia Riley as Sid and Nancy, respectively, provided the opera with real working class heart. Although a few of Nancy's lower notes were lost in Act III, the couple's lyrical tone and warmth of voice were able to convince me that the youth of Albert Herring are not engaged in the mindless lust of which their betters accuse them, but instead in enjoyment of the early stages of love. Their interaction – bold and flirtatious when in public, but soft and intimate when alone – was utterly convincing, and reflected in both their acting and their voices. Nancy's guilt in Act III after spiking Albert's lemonade was palpable, and Sid's delight when Albert later returned from his night of debauchery was infectious. Britten would agree that if this is the future of Loxford, then the town has nothing to worry about.

Glyndebourne on Tour: Albert HerringUnfortunately, the same cannot be said of the remaining working class character in the opera, the eponymous hero. I felt that Robert Murray, as Albert, really lacked the depth of existential angst which would have elevated his initial emasculation and consequent coming-of-age from an isolated incident to one which stood for the upheaval of a departing social order. In Act I, slumping and stomping around stage, Albert looked like a petulant youth rather than an individual faced with the bleakness of metaphysical castration caused by his forced marriage to his mother and the social dictates of Billows and her cronies. Albert's particularity – rather, that is, than his metaphorical existence as the demolisher of the old moral order – was exacerbated, counter-intuitively, by Murray's excellent acting in Act II.

In this Act, Albert is required to be a comic foil to Billows et al, a role which Murray successfully hammed up by looking terrified at the idea of being re-elected next year, shaking when it came to his speech, and using Foxe's 'Book of Martyrs' – a gift from Wordsworth – as a footstool. He was also a tremendously funny drunk in Act III, but, again, not a particularly existential one. We got little sense of the significance that his decision to indulge his sensual pleasures would have for both him, and the departing moral order. Consequently, when Albert returned later in Act III, his entrance, although funny, felt hollow. Without a sense that his journey was motivated by something really monumental – a deep fear of never knowing love, a true disagreement with the existing moral order, and so forth – Albert's return can do little more than aggravate his superiors. Throughout all this, of course, Murray's singing was technically excellent. Unfortunately, technique alone cannot convey the metaphorical message behind Albert's actions.

The Glyndebourne on Tour Orchestra, reduced to the chamber ensemble which Britten so enjoyed, sounded excellent and fresh throughout. In such a small ensemble, there is clearly very little room for error, and the orchestra rose to the occasion, working together like a team of old friends. I particularly enjoyed their accompaniment to the speeches in Act II, where the character of the instrumentalist is just as important in conveying the onstage character as the singer himself.

Unfortunately, my praise for the ensemble's conductor, Rory MacDonald, must be more reserved. Although he is clearly a masterful communicator and the orchestra enjoyed playing with him, I felt that there simply wasn't enough variety in his interpretation of the score. While the fault for this in part lies with Britten – there is a glut of pastoral music in the opera – I feel that MacDonald could have insisted on greater shifts in tempo and volume throughout the work to mitigate this glut. For instance, the Act III love duet between Sid and Nancy simply felt too loud for a moonlight assignation, while Mum's speech praising Albert in Act I, following the blustery entry of Pike, felt rushed. Most importantly, the mirroring passage at the end of the work – where Mum mourns Albert – felt equally hurried. I think that in order to really hear the best of this score, the conductor is honour-bound to enforce a certain degree of variability in both tempo and volume, otherwise the audience is entitled to feel a little bored.

The closing act of the opera saw some big laughs – the ceremonious appearance of Albert's crushed wreath and Albert's re-entry as he is mourned, for example. However, I can't help but feel that these laughs might be symptoms of the very problem I'm describing. Unless the audience understands the depth of Albert's despair, the horror of his situation, and the full import of his decision to leave, the whole work can never be more than a light-hearted romp through outdated English country customs. I believe that it can be much more. If it isn't, then we, like Billows and her cohorts who at the close of Act III have heard enough about the protagonist's night out, must beg Albert Herring to stop.

By William Lockhart