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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913 – 1976)
Albert Herring - A comic opera in three acts (1947)
Lady Billows, an elderly autocrat ... Patricia Johnson (mezzo)
Florence Pike, her housekeeper ... Felicity Palmer (mezzo)
Miss Wordsworth, Head Teacher ... Elizabeth Gale (soprano)
Mr Gedge, the Vicar ... Derek Hammond-Stroud (baritone)
Mr Upfold, the Mayor ... Alexander Oliver (tenor)
Superintendent Budd ... Richard Van Allan (bass)
Sid, a butcher’s assistant ... Alan Opie (baritone)
Albert Herring, from the greengrocer’s ... John Graham-Hall
Nancy, from the bakery ... Jean Rigby (mezzo)
Mrs Herring, Albert’s mother ... Patricia Kern (mezzo)
Emmie, village child ... Maria Bovino (soprano)
Cis, village child ... Bernadette Lord (soprano)
Harry, village child ... Richard Peachey (treble)
The Glyndebourne Chorus
soloists of London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
Recorded without audience at Glyndebourne theatre 19-20 Aug 1985.
NVC ARTS [Warner] 5050467-8790-2-7 [145:00]


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. (Shame! Ed.)

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 verve.

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 nuance missed.

Derek Hammond-Stroud 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 of tone.

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 teacher.

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 perfect compatibility.

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 musical cross-references.

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.

Robert McKechnie

 

 



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