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REVIEW: Albert Herring | Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney

It’s your last chance to see one of Opera Australia’s acclaimed productions, the Benjamin Britten chamber piece Albert Herring. The performances are fine.

The cast of Albert Herring | Joan Sutherland Theatre (Pic: Branco Gaica)

It wasn’t very long ago at all that the resourceful Sydney Chamber Opera staged a Benjamin Britten opera, so the scheduling of Opera Australia’s Albert Herring, also by said composer, should help consolidate some well-deserved re-examination of the Britisher. Like SCO’s Owen Wingrave, AH is a chamber opera, which provides an interesting point of difference in presentation, with the much smaller than usual Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra moved forward and up, out of its usual subterranean bower.

AH was the follow-up to The Rape of Lucretia. Perhaps Britten needed a little light relief, as the former is decidedly comical, with a libretto by Eric Crozier, based on Guy de Maupassant’s late nineteenth-century novella, Le Rosier de Madame Husson, albeit with the action reset in the sleepy Suffolk countryside. I’ve not read the novella, but assume Crozier has emulated de Maupassant’s character blueprints, but refashioned them as needed to better conform with the best of British self-righteousness.

Certainly, this quality  is to be found in abundance in Lady Billows, a veritable pillar of the community just as rigid as her more concrete counterpart. She is the most notorious of busybodies, privy to all the talk of the town and unofficially presiding over it. Butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Young soprano Jane Ede stepped into Jacqueline Dark’s shoes on opening night, due to the indisposition of both her and another star, Kanen Breen, who was to play Albert. Brad Cooper took over where Mr Breen left off.

Ede soldiered on with a cold and, as a consequence, probably only gave a glimpse of her vocal powers, while showing strength in the dramatic department, managing to carry herself in a suitably intimidating manner, despite being but a babe-in-the-woods Billows. You’ll recognise Her Ladyship from any local committee or community group with which you might’ve had the misfortune to be involved; the petticoated politician, mistress of municipal manoeuvres. Her sidekick is Dominica Matthews, as Florence Pike, Billows’ housekeeper who, in reality is more like a field marshal’s aide. Between the two, mistress and minion, they’ve got the town father’s running as scared as Tony Soprano had his crew. Matthews draws her character colourfully and comically.

Britten had people well-known to him firmly in mind when conceiving these characters, which makes them all the more relatable and ridiculous. And the set-up is so devilish. Since there’s no little or no prospect of finding a virtuous young woman in or about the village, notwithstanding a forensic level of discovery (Pike has determinedly dug the dirt on every eligible lass, in like fashion to the relish the Reverend Fred Nile takes in sniffing out depravity in our midst), Lady Billows reluctantly concedes and decrees it can be a man. This is a wonderful conceit, as it allows for an outrageous, unbridled burlesque on small town, small-minded hypocrisy that can be found, still, to resonate through disgraced local government in our own time and place: the hallowed, wood-panelled nobility of council chambers versus dirty deals done dirt cheap, off the record and off the books. Not only that, the premise allows for empathy with the “outsider”, particularly the outsider who has conservative forces stacked against him.

In the case of Albert, of course, he’s trapped inside the town. Psychologically, though, he’s very much the outsider. It’s been suggested Britten saw (and wrote) himself into his operas in this way, for he, too, as a gay man living and working in mid-twentieth century England, felt and existed outside the parameters of convention. In this sense, there’s a melancholic current running under the comedy. Not that mummy’s boy Albert is gay. He lusts after Nancy (Sian Pendry), but she’s Sid (Samuel Dundas), the butcher’s girl. Nonetheless, ‘the opera’s characters, especially Albert, are emblematic of the composer’s own self-image’, at least according to William Florescu, artistic director of Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera. ‘While Britten wasn’t exactly closeted (he lived and worked with his life partner, tenor Sir Peter Pears, for most of his career), the composer had a strong wish to be a part of the English mainstream. I think Britten, like his characters, lived within the norms of society, while suppressing aspects of himself.’ An interesting thesis, of course, but it leaves out the significance of Crozier’s contribution somewhat. As Britten biographer Humphrey carpenter points out, Crozier was “well-qualified to transfer the setting to Suffolk, for one of his grandfathers had kept a country shop there”. In the broadest sense, it’s pitting of individual will against a “might is right” majority isn’t likely to lose any potency any time soon.

Brad Cooper is Albert and sports a fine tenor that, arguably, became even finer as this three-act work wore on. (You don’t have to be Nostradamus to predict a bright future for him.) He also wears the role of the enslaved son who suddenly gets his mojo on, after his first taste of rum, exceedingly well. He becomes the May King, in lieu of the virginal queen, but, on being anointed and inducted, disappears to indulge in a night of debauchery; as you do.

Superintendent Budd is charged with the task of recovering his body and, along with everyone else, is mightily peeved when Albert resurfaces, alive and well. Conal Coad is consummately cast. This is a role gives full licence to his disposition to comedy and he exploits it. His blustering bass is just the ticket too, making Budd like a waddling sousaphone; a kind of countrified Keystone cop.

Elvira Fatykhova’s Miss Wordsworth, head teacher of the church school, sounded as lustrous as the key to her chastity belt appears; though the frisson between her and Mr Gedge, the vicar (Michael Lewis), threatens, vaguely, to tarnish her honour. Both performers put a charmingly shy, blushing complexion on their would-be intimacy.

John Longmuir is Mr Upfold, the mayor, his assured tenor bending the ear in just the right way. His character, perhaps, isn’t as colourful as his counterparts, so it’s consolation to revel in his vocal opulence. Roxane Hislop is Mrs Herring, convincing as Albert’s domineering, masquerading as doting, mother. Worthy of mention, too, are Emmie (Angela Arduca), Harry (Jordan Dulieu) and Cis (Jessica Zylstra); practically flawless in every department, as Miss W’s mischievous charges.

But the standouts this evening, for mine, were Nancy and Sid , who radiated the warmth and exuberance of young lovers and whose respective vocal talents were in first-rate form: Pendry’s mezzo shimmering, while Dundas’ baritone sounded fresh and fruity.

Anthony Legge conducts the ‘honey, I shrunk the orchestra!’ ensemble (a baker’s dozen, matching the cast tally exactly), with enthusiasm and, if one can presume to intuit it, great affection. That alleged affection, of course, is hardly misplaced: perhaps its vivacity was best encapsulated by Crozier, early in it development, when he enthused to his betrothed, Nancy Evans (who lent her name to the baker’s daughter in the work and was promised the role), that seeing some of his libretto “in score already, is like seeing one’s child in party clothes for the first time”. Britten has brilliantly contrived the music to conform to whatever characters, or social stratum, is being dealt with; in this sense, the score is as descriptive as the libretto. It makes for challenging listening, at least inasmuch as one shouldn’t expect Verdi, or the trademarks of any other composer; although Britten was an orchestral innovator, albeit in a very different way to the Italian. But once attuned, Britten’s genius is transparent and the work thoroughly listenable and enjoyable. And then there are the eyebrow-arching surprises, like the debt owed to jazz, especially obvious in plucked bass.

Going by the efficacy of performances across the board, this revival is a feather in the cap of rehearsal director, Matthew Barclay, who has ensured a story exceptionally well told by Crozier and Britten is just that. And Roger Butlin’s impeccable and thoroughgoing set and costume design would do the most sumptuous English period cinema justice. It all looks the part, even if it was a logistical puzzle to locate and mouldering when found.

This is your very last chance to see John Cox’s production, which first saw light of day 37 years ago, just a few years after the Sydney Opera House opened. It’s being retired. Even opera marches on. But it’s a nostalgic way to honour the centenary of Britten’s birth. Happy hundredth, BB!

The details: Albert Herring plays one more performance at the Joan Sutherland Theatre on September 30. Tickets on the company website.

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