Enjoying a great Britten thanks to ETO

A scene from Albert Herring. (Picture by Richard Hubert Smith)
A scene from Albert Herring. (Picture by Richard Hubert Smith)

English Touring Opera, Albert Herring. Harrogate Theatre.

For the second of three productions in its autumn programme, English Touring Opera brought to Harrogate Theatre the Benjamin Britten comic chamber opera Albert Herring.

First performed in 1947 at Glyndebourne - where it was not particularly well received - it is based loosely on a short story, Le Rosier de Madame Husson, by the French writer Guy de Maupassant.

Autocratic Lady Billows, full of high morals, wishes to choose a young girl of the village to be May Queen.

Finding a girl of such virtue, however, proves impossible, especially when her housekeeper, who keeps notes on all the village maidens and their activities, has added her opinion to the discussion.

Eventually it’s decided to appoint instead a May King - Albert Herring, a shy simple shopkeeper entirely, but not willingly, under his mother’s thumb.

Following a trick played on him at the celebration evening by his neighbour, Albert becomes drunk, wanders off to enjoy himself or drown his sorrows, causes great concern by his absence but in due course turns up somewhat the worse for wear but with eyes opened to what life has to offer.

No harm other than hurt feelings comes to anyone. We feel sad, perhaps, for Albert. We probably leave with mixed emotions for his mum who does show some concern when she’s convinced he’s dead and we wonder about the relationship between the vicar and Miss Wordsworth the teacher.

The subject matter, then, is fairly light. It’s not a laugh-a-minute opera but certainly there is much to smile at which may explain why when it returned to Glyndebourne in later years it was recorded as a great success.

There is no doubt that it was strongly sung by a polished, energetic and experienced cast. Even the childen have an impressive pedigree as singers and actors.

Jennifer Rhys-Davies makes a marvellous Lady Billows, flowing Spanish-galleon-like across the stage, usually closely followed by the housekeeper Florence Pike, admirably performed by Rosie Aldridge.

Meanwhile, Mark Wilde moves confidently through the various moods presented by Albert from simple greengrocer to his position as May King wearing a ridiculous white suit to drunkard and finally to a somewhat re-formed and more jovial character.

The story is placed in the imaginary town of Loxford in Suffolk, a county well known, of course, to Britten who spent many years in Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast.

Michael Rosewell’s direction of the orchestra which complements and indeed emphasises the action on stage is firm, even to ensuring the drums and harpist who are positioned in the boxes nearest the stage are brought in always at the right moment.

And designer Neil Irish’s set is well worthy of mention, too, serving for several locations and presenting the cage-like appearance which reflects Albert’s life.

Much to appreciate, then. No doubt the full-house audience who gave the production very prolonged applause went home feeling their knowledge of Britten’s music and this less performed opera had been widened.

Ken Hulme