Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Britten - Albert Herring (Buxton, 2017)

Benjamin Britten - Albert Herring

Buxton Festival, 2017

Justin Doyle, Francis Matthews, Bradley Smith, Heather Shipp, Morgan Pearse, Kathryn Rudge, John Molloy, Yvonne Howard, Nicholas Merryweather, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Lucy Schaufer, Mary Hegarty, Bonnie Callaghan, Nicholas Challier, Sophie Gallagher, Simeon John-Wake

Buxton Opera House - 19th July 2017

Who would have thought that Benjamin Britten, an outsider to the social and musical establishment, would be the composer who best captures the essential qualities of Englishness in his works? And not just in a kind of idealised fashion in the recounting of historical period drama or even just documenting the contemporary England of his times, but in a manner that captures attitudes and behaviours that are essentially and timelessly English. The social study of Peter Grimes might very well be his masterpiece in that regard, but Albert Herring captures much of the same character with the additional qualities of charm and humour.

It's the nature of the comedy and what is revealed through the brilliance of its wit and the wider detail of the characterisation that may even give weight to the argument for Albert Herring truly being Britten's masterpiece. Never having seen this Britten opera performed before (and not being English myself), I would have been sceptical of such a claim placing this work above Peter Grimes, Billy Budd or even War Requiem, but if there is a case to be made for Albert Herring as Britten's masterpiece, it's seeing it performed in Buxton surrounded by the same kind of characters that it depicts so colourfully up there on the stage. Francis Matthews's production for the 2017 Buxton Festival makes a wholly convincing case for its greatness.

Quite rightly, the principal claim for its greatness lies in the dazzling variety of the opera's musical language that never gets too clever for its own good. Britten develops and reworks musical, choral and motifs that don't just parody or emulate traditional English forms of music but tap into its baroque, folk and pastoral roots much more successfully than in Gloriana. It matches these moreover to specific English situations and character and to a lighter side of life that is loving and affectionate. You could say the same for how Justin Doyle brings those qualities out of the orchestral playing and for how Francis Matthews stages it in the marvellous Buxton production.

The other factor that stands in the favour of Albert Herring is the delightful witty libretto by Eric Crozier, based on a Maupassant story. Like Britten's score it is light and colourful, managing to be evocative of everything English without ever getting nostalgic or self-glorifying about it. How else can a line like 'Swan Vestas' be quite so hilarious? It celebrates the little person, the underdog and it deflates pomposity, finding the essence of Englishness out in its little village craftsmen and tradesmen rather than in the pretentiousness of its authority figures, although even there the work establishes a wonderful and authentic dynamic between its social classes. Even the name Albert Herring, with its regal forename matched to a rather more humble surname somehow manages to sum up everything that the work miraculously manages to achieve.

Surely then I wasn't the only person in the audience who looked on the behaviour around the May Day celebration committee table and thought of the cabinet of the current government? Theresa May, the authoritarian Lady Billings, with her delusions of competence, speaking in meaningless clichés and catch-phrases; Phillip Hammond the mayor managing the purse strings, but that official can manage to subtract 3 from 25 however, so there's a slight difference there; Michael Gove is Mr Gedge the Vicar, with his faith in educating the youth through the Bible, Shakespeare and Foxes Book of Martyrs. It's probably not fair to compare Sid to Boris Johnson, but still, quite the 'May Day' parade indeed.

Who am I kidding? I doubt anyone else would have been thinking such thoughts while enjoying how Francis Matthews directed the proceedings and the satire with a much lighter touch. Which is not to say that the Buxton audience weren't able to recognise and laugh at the gentle poking of fun at characters they would surely meet on a daily basis or at attitudes and behaviours which still persist. And to go by the current Conservative government whose actions are beyond satire really, it just goes to show how some characteristics are true and universal. And human. Which is what is great about Albert Herring and why it will endure.

The singing at Buxton really couldn't be faulted. Bradley Smith's brightly sung Albert is an innocent figure from a not so bygone age who needs to throw off that English reserve and stand up to his 'betters'. Sid and Nancy (now there's a prophetic pairing of names in respect of rebellious youth) are also wonderfully sung and characterised by Morgan Pearse and Kathryn Rudge. Heather Shipp is a fine Mrs Herring. The 'character' roles are an important part of the work and taken colourfully by Yvonne Howard as Lady Billows, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as Mr Upfold the Mayor, Nicholas Merryweather as Mr Gedge the Vicar and John Molloy as Superintendent Budd. With impeccable direction, light-hearted comic detail and visual jokes to go with the musical delights on offer, there was much to enjoy in this fabulously entertaining production of Britten's comic masterpiece.

Links: Buxton International Festival