Review: Albert Herring

CAMILLA SEALE finds only the professional in this student opera about a small town boy’s unexpected drunken revels.

Albert Herring Cambridge Opera Queen's College

Comedy? Opera? Yes please. Cast your mind back to the very first time you got drunk. Experiencing the subtle comedy of Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring was somewhat akin to watching my teenage self attempt a rather pathetic rebellion with the aid of Scrumpy Jack.

Director George Kan captures the comic, farcical and pathetic textures of this opera with seamless ease. Originally premiered in 1947, the plot centres around the small, and small minded, town of Loxford.

Lady Billows, played with confidence by Hannah Partridge, is on the lookout for a May Queen. Unfortunately, none of the girls in the town are virgins, so eventually Albert, the shopkeeper’s son, is reluctantly dressed up for the role.

While the 50s spin on the show was a little underdeveloped, the set was pleasingly elegant, moving from Lady Billows’ pristine couch to Albert’s grocery shop with a classy use of fly space.

The thrust of the action did feel static at points in the second half, where several orchestral passages were accompanied by nothing onstage. These, I think, were redeemed by some moments of genius – the pink spotlight as the fatal rum is poured into Albert’s lemonade glass and the fairy lights that descended from the sky to decorate the celebratory feast.

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I was particularly thankful that in such a wordy opera, almost everything could be heard. Eric Crozier’s down to earth libretto (with pleasingly trite lines like ‘I miss all the fun because of mum’) gives us an entertaining selection of stock comic characters. As an ensemble piece, it has been perfectly cast. Even in the smaller roles, such as Pollyana Furness’ Cis, the singers distinguished themselves.

Each matched voice to character, climaxing with near-farce as the town prematurely mourns the death of Albert. In the starring role, Hiroshi Amako, with a gloriously powerful tenor voice and natural gift for comedy, played Albert with great subtlety, inspiring laughs and pity in all the right places.

The romantic couple Nancy and Sid, played by Olivia Bell and Peter Lidbetter, were both vocally very seductive. However, as the disruptive elements of the plot, a little more chemistry might have made for an easier descent into Albert’s drunkenness to shock the townspeople.

Special congratulations must go to musical director, Benedict Kearns, who managed to balance singers and orchestra and handle the incredibly difficult and exposed music miraculously.

One could relax into the abundant moments of musical comedy: a strumming harp as the gift of May King is bestowed upon Albert, a piccolo for the children and one particularly sumptuous cello solo.

These Cambridge students play the comedy of Englishness wonderfully, giving real warmth to one of Britten most unusual and imaginative operas. A rare piece of genius.

4 stars