“I consider it m’duty” to give this lovingly detailed, brilliantly played and gloriously sung production its full complement of stars. John Copley’s staging depicts small-town life in all its pettiness, pomposity and subdued grandeur, demonstrating in almost every scene the truth of Irving Howe’s view that the best art almost becomes sentimental, but doesn’t.
Steuart Bedford shapes the playing of the superb Aurora Orchestra in the most exquisite phrasing, every note placed like pearls on a string. Led by Jamie Campbell, this tiny band evoked each changing mood of Britten’s score, from M’lady’s explosive rages to the children’s innocent games. We are in the most exalted of hands here, since both conductor and director were close associates of the composer, and this familiarity with his work shone through in every little detail.
The cast was a true ensemble one, without a weak link in its golden chain. It was led by Orla Boylan’s hilarious portrayal of Lady Billows as the epitome of a certain kind of woman, perhaps best summed up as a fusion of Hyacinth Bucket, Lady Bracknell and the Chairperson who fixes you with a basilisk stare when you timidly ask if a teeny change might be made to the committee’s rules. Some of us have fond memories of Boylan’s Tatyana many years ago, as we have of Adrian Thompson’s Idamante – now that shows our age, but it’s wonderful to note that Thompson’s crystalline notes fall as gracefully on the ear as ever, and his characterization of the Mayor is one more achievement to add to his impressive list of Meistersingers and many other character roles.
Boylan’s ferocious, yet lovable creation never descends into mere caricature, despite what must be temptations to do so (“M’husband shot the brute in ’86!”) and her singing is glorious, whether trumpeting outrage or quietly accepting joyful outcomes. The same is true of Richard Pinkstone’s ‘hero,’ whose robust tones always suggest the eventual break-out – he gave a beautifully rounded performance, from his horror at unpaid-for peaches to his insouciant swaggering at his ‘reappearance.’ Timothy Nelson’s Sid was sung with melifluous beauty of tone, elegantly seductive rather than brashly demanding, and he had the perfect partner in Kitty Whately’s feisty, lovable Nancy, who sang her aria of regret beautifully. Anna Gillingham was equally ideal casting as Miss Wordsworth, and Kathleen Wilkinson’s Mrs Herring sang eloquently whether scolding or despairing.
Alexander Robin-Baker was an exceptionally noble Mr Gedge, singing his paean of praise to Virtue with gloriously full, rounded tone, and Clarissa Meek was a totally credible Florence, relishing her comprehensive knowledge of all the naughtiness of the local youth. Andri Björn-Róbbertson’s Superintendent Budd was another brilliantly drawn characterization, finely sung and funny without descending into ridicule. Emily Vine, Catriona Hewitson and Jack Stone sang with characterful clarity and never summoned up even a hint of a cringe.
Humphrey Burton wrote that “Albert Herring is Britten’s love-letter to his beloved Suffolk” and John Copley’s production shows this in every scene, aided by Prue Handley’s delicate, softly Summery costume designs, Tim Reed’s finely detailed sets and Kevin Treacy’s subtle, lambent lighting. Sviatoslav Richter is said to have declared Albert Herring “The greatest comic opera of the twentieth century” and this production, performed in this ideally intimate setting, makes it easy to agree with him.