The charm of this new version of Benjamin Britten’s 1947 opera Albert Herring lies not only in the impeccable vocal performances of the cast, but their strong overall characterisations as well. The humour of this nostalgic, parochial farce (which utilises the collective imagination’s picture of Victorian village life cleverly) depends on clear characterisation, satire and innuendo—one of the biggest laughs of the night was probably a female character’s flirtatious request for ‘a piece of best British beef’.
The set, while not overly complicated, creates clear distinctions between the different locations as well as evoking Victorian pastoral life, and—in a particularly creative touch—the cast themselves move props between scenes, entirely in character. While the orchestra tirelessly keeps a brisk, entertaining pace, the actors toil back and forth, except for a certain imperious aristocratic female character who at one point stands back and orders the others around as they carry boxes: it’s an ingenious method of keeping the audience laughing between scenes.
Maximilian Lawrie shines as the title character Albert, his clear discomfort at the enforced, emasculating title of May King building until it manifests in a captivating outburst that exhibits his outstanding voice at its best. Albert’s transformation over the course of the opera is not the only stand-out performance in the production, however: the sheer presence of Margaret Marchetti’s Lady Billows is incredible, emphasised by a majestic entrance and striking vocal performance. She works along with the three village representatives (played by Will Pate, Tara Mansfield and John Lee) and her acerbic maid Florence Pike (Sian Millet) to evaluate and dismiss the unchaste village girls in a superbly-acted scene, where the underlying social restrictions implicit in these condemnations blend with the satirical humour as seamlessly as the intersecting of the singers’ parts. Millet’s lament for ‘Country virgins, if there be such’ is particularly memorable, as the woman who has gathered rumours about every girl in town affects superior morality.
Lila Chrisp and Ivo Almond also dazzle with natural ease and chemistry, as the young couple who serve as counterpoint to the village’s moralising, Nancy and Sid. The three schoolchildren (Ellie Bray, Sofia Kirwan-Baez and Harry Gant) are equally charming, and a scene with them and Tara Mansfield’s headmistress character may send some audience members flashing back to choir practice with its brilliantly detailed satire.
Even if the speed and subtlety of the humour may seem daunting to some, this production will soon welcome and enrapture you—this perfect antidote to fifth week blues combines wit, social commentary and a beautiful score to stunning effect.