Review: Britten’s springtime opera falls flat

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“ALBERT Herring” is Benjamin Britten’s springtime opera. A feast for connoisseurs interested in identifying the composer’s comic references to great musical works of opera, it is at the same time stupefyingly quaint to the contemporary eye and ear.

Lady Billows' meeting, photo by Branco Gaica
Lady Billows’ meeting, photo by Branco Gaica
For the England depicted in the opera, a suffocating Suffolk village circa 1900, is a thing of the past, so much so that Britten’s fiery criticism of the sexual repression and class distinctions of that time falls flat.

Aggravating the problem, this production, first performed at Sydney Opera House in 1976 in a production by John Cox, is looking distinctly the worse for wear. With a monotone set changed too often, even  the machinery creaks audibly.

The monotone quality extends into performances by the children, whose rhythmic taunts at the simpleminded village grocer Albert Herring also fall flat.

Metaphorically the production creaks too, lightened only by the performances of Samuel Dundas as Sid the butcher, Sian Pendry as his girlfriend Nancy and Conal Coad as the local Superintendent Budd, who performances match the comic mode in which Britten was writing. The witty libretto by Eric Crozier is revealed in the surtitles, but very little of it is clear in the articulation.

Certainly it was unfortunate that on the opening night of this brief revival, both the principals, Jacqueline Dark as Lady Billows and Kanen Breen as Albert, were replaced at short notice. Jane Ede playing Lady Billows was simply too young and too “straight” to pull off the part of this Lady Bracknell-like despot.

It was a different matter with Brad Cooper, taking on his first principal role for Opera Australia as Albert Herring. He gave full credibility, vocally and in characterisation, to the role of the young grocer crowned King of the May, who wants to break out.

The ensemble playing reached a high point in the mock-operatic scene where the characters assume Albert to be dead. Here Britten’s multi-layered elegy was superbly rendered.

“Albert Herring” feels like a chamber opera, with its tight cast, reduced orchestra and ensemble performances and almost cried out for a smaller auditorium.

It is time for Opera Australia, if it wants to keep “Albert Herring” in the repertoire, to offer us a fresh comic interpretation of this work.

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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