Britten: Albert Herring

Royal Academy Opera

Royal Academy of Music, London, 11 March 2010 4 stars

Albert HerringWith veteran stage director John Copley in charge, I expected high standards at the Royal Academy Opera's production of Albert Herring.

However, I was astonished to find such a level of competence both on the stage and in the orchestra pit, which could be the envy of many highly respected opera companies. 

Unusually for an opera report, I will start with the orchestra. Britten scored some of his operas – including The Turn of the Screw, The Rape of Lucretia and Albert Herring – for chamber ensembles with notoriously difficult instrumental parts. Indeed, professional opera companies are often forced to pay additional high fees to their principal players for performances of these operas. Yet the players of the Royal Academy of Music Sinfonia delivered Britten's score with amazing courage and mostly with admirable skills. In particular, pianist Christopher White was authoritative and highly musical. Any professional company would be lucky to have him on board. I also noted some splendid flute (Harry Winstanley) and double bass (Katy Furmanski) solos, but praise is due to the whole group.                 

I am uncertain whether conductor Nicholas Kok has conducted Albert Herring in the past. However, I am certain that he knows Britten's charming and masterly score inside out. His tempi were well chosen and he was in full control of the orchestra and the singers. During his solo in Scene Two of the second act, for a few seconds Albert (the excellent Thomas Hobbs) got out of sync with the orchestra. Quick as a lightening – ironically, during a scheduled gas jet explosion on stage – and with consummate skills, Kok brought back the order. It is a credit to Hobbs that he looked unfazed and stayed in character.

Hobbs has a powerful but pure tenor voice, which he used with musicality and technical assurance. I am still wondering how he managed to sing (so well) while eating an apple for a few bars after his reappearance from the ‘dead' in the third act. But what will stay with me longer is the masterly and wholly credible pathos with which he sang about his fear (of adulthood) in the second act.

Soprano Rebecca Goulden (Lady Billows) delivered her technically demanding part with virtuosity but, sadly, I could not understand a single word she sang. Polly, my English guest – born and raised in the Albert Herring land of Suffolk – explained that this was aristocratic pronunciation, but I can't help wondering about the question of diction. 

Albert HerringThere was no problem with the crystal clear diction of baritone Charles Rice, who shaped his solo(s) beautifully and demonstrated a wonderful sense of humour in his portrayal of Mr Gedge, the Vicar. And I can only praise the excellent performances of all other singers, that is Natalia Brzezinska (Florence Pike), Emily Ward (Miss Wordsworth), Alexander Sprague (Mr Upfold, the Mayor), Thomas Faulkner (Superintendent Budd), Jonathan McGovern (Sid),  Leslie Davis (Nancy) and Emma Rothman (Mrs Herring). There were some excellent contributions from the delightful young trio of Mary Bevan (Emmie), Tess Bevan (Cis) and Joseph Beesley (Harry). Apart from their singing, the youngsters also amazed me with the precision of their ball passing (while, of course, singing).

The intimacy of the RAM's opera theatre – with its small stage and auditorium – makes it an ideal venue for Britten's chamber opera. Tim Reed's simple but imaginative and atmospheric sets and Prue Handley's graceful 1920s costumes matched the early twentieth-century Suffolk plot and RAM's venue beautifully. On the flip side, we could clearly hear noisy scene changes behind the closed curtains during the orchestral interludes.  

And last but not least, as so often in the past several decades, John Copley staged a highly musical, sensitive and humorous interpretation of an operatic masterpiece. He is funny but never vulgar, he pays attention to every detail of every character in the plot and he respects the music. The singers were fortunate to work with such a master, although – after such collaboration – disappointment in future productions is a distinct possibility.   

The programme notes consisted of the synopsis (written by pianist Christopher White), of an excellent and extensive analysis of the opera (written again by pianist Christopher White) and of biographies. Unfortunately, there were no biographical notes about the versatile Christopher White, yet arguably his piano playing and insightful analysis warranted a few lines about him. I for one would like to know what shaped him. 

I felt fortunate to witness this performance. Judging by their reaction, so did the whole audience. The Royal Academy Opera triumphed.

By Agnes Kory

Photo credit: Mark Whitehouse

 

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