Buxton International Festival’s second opera mounted under its own steam, Britten’s Albert Herring, can be summed a little more briefly than Verdi’s Macbeth.
It is little short of magnificent and entirely merited the exuberant reception at the end!
The whole cast is thoroughly engaging and turn in a wonderful ensemble performance with everyone playing off each other, especially the six-member May-Day Festival Committee with some highly experienced singers in its number.
Yvonne Howard, in excellent voice, is a suitably formidable Lady Billows and Lucy Schaufer beautifully characterises her put-on minion Florence Pike, at the same time assuming petty importance in imitation of her redoubtable ladyship.
The whole committee of worthies is vividly etched: Mary Hegarty’s genteelly dizzy schoolmarm Miss Wordsworth; Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts’ puffed up mayor, Mr Upfold; Nick Merryweather’s cardboard cut-out vicar Mr Gedge, skilfully given an indefinable different edge; and John Molloy’s stiff-necked Superintendent Budd – impressive bass voice, too!
Also vocally impressive is Morgan Pearse as Sid, a well-focussed light baritone with an easy stage manner and, as his village bombshell girlfriend Nancy, Kathryn Rudge simply uses her gorgeous mezzo-soprano voice to great effect.
Heather Shipp cuts crest-fallen, almost tragic figure as Mrs Herring when Albert finally wakes up and turns on her, while as the greengrocer’s lad himself, Bradley Smith could hardly be more of a simpleton, bespectacled, nervously shy and insecure.
Leading us to his transformation and the only really contentious aspect of the production, which is otherwise left firmly in the post-war 1940s by director Francis Matthews.
A Carousel-like dream ballet is added to the instrumental interlude when Albert returns home after his crowning and a ‘Stranger’ (a silent Simeon John-Wake), who pops up throughout, presents himself and begins gyrating suggestively, which Albert eventually starts emulating.
Sexually suggestive, it leads to the implication that Matthews perhaps sees (and stresses) something in the dubious theory of a homosexual subtext seen by some in the opera, which is held up as a sort of ‘coming out’ ritual.
On a more pertinent note, the Northern Chamber Orchestra (effectively its principals) and conductor Justin Doyle were alert to every nuance of Britten’s complex, constantly shifting score.