Whether there can be a definitive production
of an opera is open to debate. What
may be definitive for you, or an earlier
era, may not be for me, or this era,
and so on. However, I do believe that
there can be a benchmark production:
this production lays down such a marker.
You will recall that
1947 saw the world premiere – also at
Glyndebourne; of which John Christie
said to his audience "this isn’t
our sort of thing you know". When
his audience obviously enjoyed the production
he promptly described them as "very
vulgar". So no Albert at
Glyndebourne for nearly forty years
until this production in 1985 which
was then revived in 2002 and sent on
tour. Therefore many were fortunate
to see it ‘live’, as I did. Again this
DVD proves the truism that what you
see live is not necessarily what you
see recorded. I will return to that
from time to time.
In summary: this is
a great production of a chamber opera.
Tempting though it is to write pages
about the opera, you will be relieved
dear Editor that I shall accept my role
as reviewer of the production only.
The sets (director
Peter Hall/designer John Gunter) evocatively
capture the atmosphere of a century
ago. The Billows breakfast room, the
shop and the marquee are vividly sharp
in generality and specifics. The last
setting produced spontaneous and loud
applause when I saw it from a more cynical
audience than attended the opening that
had also applauded the shop setting.
One disappointment on the DVD is the
frequent use of sepia and/or muted colours
noticeable particularly at the opening
and during much of the marquee scene.
There is no "wow" factor which
spontaneous applause indicates.
Whilst the lighting
(David Hersey) was for the most part
impeccable I do have reservations about
the facial lighting on the DVD when
brimmed headgear is worn. This is most
noticeable when Albert decides to go
AWOL – too much of the time his eyes
are in shadow.
Is that all I have
to complain about? Well, yes, it probably
is, save for a slight inconsistency
in the Suffolk accent of Alan Opie (Sid),
if only because Jean Rigby (Nancy) rarely
lets hers slip. Nor in this production
does Lady Billows sound like Florence
sound like ‘Mum’ (compare the review
of the Chandos CD (CHAN10036(2))
Patricia Johnson (Lady
Billows) sails into her upper crust
role like a stately galleon in full
sail; apologies to Joyce Grenfell. Her
vocal leaps are despatched with middle-note
accuracy. If there is a sharpness or
edge to her voice it only serves to
emphasise her role and produces excellent
diction. Her interaction with the four
leading ‘worthies’ is carried off with
Felicity Palmer (Florence
Pike) is a splendid world-weary factotum
epitomised in her line " ...
one lifetime, one brain ... ".
However her energy returns to emulate
her employer’s vocal leaps with a wonderfully
deep mezzo that she pulls from the depths
to resonate around the stage. Her self-important
indignation in "For three precious
weeks ... " is a joy to listen
to and behold – not a syllable or facial
captures beautifully in pained expression
or beaming approval the words and spirit
of a vicar who wishes to please everyone.
His smooth baritone offers May Queen
names almost apologetically once his
first suggestion has been dashed. Later
when comforting ‘Mum’ with Gale’s Miss
Wordsworth there is a luxurious richness
Alexander Oliver portrays
accurately the miserable portentous
Mayor, with no accent and declaims with
excellent monotone: a role without much
depth but Oliver captures it’s Italianate
influence well. Richard Van Allan’s
distinctively timbred bass with its
wonderfully dark tone and a strong Suffolk
accent depicts a perfect senior plod
but with a little more than that. Watch
him during Albert’s confession. To me
he does not appear to be " ...
delighting in sin ... " but accepting
almost indulgently Albert’s need for
a night away.
You would expect nothing
less than an almost perfect performance
from Glyndebourne favourite Elizabeth
Gale (Miss Wordsworth): and that is
what you get. The high lying vocal range
proves no trouble to a deliciously twittery
Gale: who even ‘poshes up’ her accent
for the opening scene with Lady Billows.
Amusingly carried away at the May feast
both musically and emotionally she recovers
so very believably as the slightly abashed
Alan Opie (Sid) and
Jean Rigby (Nancy) present a superb
vocal balance: from floating notes together
in a tender moment to almost savage
recriminations after Albert’s disappearance.
Opie is the relaxed ‘Jack the Lad’ delivered
with panache, tonal variety and colouring.
Rigby sings the youngest role of the
four mezzos in this opera. She almost
oozes sex appeal with a deeply warm
smooth sound. Between them they create
a real frisson of electricity particularly
in their duet "We’ll walk to
the spinney ... "
I am not sure that
John Graham Hall’s Albert is under Mum’s
thumb rather than deciding for himself
that booze and birds are not for him
– before changing his mind. Not of course
as a result of the booze but consequent
upon hearing the canoodling Sid and
Nancy and their expression of sympathy
for him. This is a masterly vocal performance.
Ringing tone, sharp word clarity, a
superb focus on line with dynamics and
intonation in plenty
Patricia Kern is too
soft a ‘mum’. You know that her bark
comes before a bite that may not be
more than a light scratch. Fuss she
does, vocally and physically about the
stage but there is an underlying gentleness.
This, of course, balances with an Albert
who has made up his own mind – so again
The three children
are so good that they almost overflow
into precociousness – but not quite.
Remarkably accurate with ball and apple
throwing to match their musical delivery.
The vocal balance between
the characters is stunningly good. The
many-layered ensembles give opportunities
for wide-ranging and hugely different
tones. The interplay in the breakfast
room is built on throughout, culminating
in a superbly delivered, emotional threnody
with camerawork that builds characters
into group portraits.
The orchestral part
was written for a small number of instruments
whether for economies of numbers in
post-war Britain or economies of writing
at which Britten excelled. Here we have
the soloists of the London Philharmonic
Orchestra with Bernard Haitink in overall
control. So no economy here. There is
a sharp immediacy of sound with vocal
support that only rarely is a little
too powerful. The orchestral interludes
interlocking the scenes are full of
dynamic contrasts from forthright fulmination
to plangent wistfulness, full of witty
The camera work has
pluses and minuses. I think there are
too many close-ups in the May feast
scene with only rare opportunities to
appreciate the over-view. Conversely
the camera picks up ‘touches’ that I
certainly missed on the live stage:
the "thank you" mouthed by
Nancy to Albert for his speech; Albert’s
raised eyebrow in response to Mum’s
"Wait till I get you home..."
, and so on. Overall the camera work
is very good indeed and picks up individual
moments faultlessly. This was helped
by an absence of audience that from
time to time enabled Graham-Hall to
address the camera direct. Not overdone
therefore so very effective when used.