Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Accomplished Contribution from Wales to Britten Celebrations

Albert Herring

Mid Wales Opera & Opera Theatre Company, Dublin , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , October-24-13
Albert Herring by Mid Wales Opera & Opera Theatre Company, Dublin “Paul Bunyan” has been performed this year in Cardiff to acclaim as part of the commemorations of the Benjamin Britten centenary. It is particularly appropriate that Mid Wales Opera should select Britten’s 1947 opera for its twenty-two-venue 2013 tour. Nearby Gregynog Hall, toasted in a BBC4 documentary this summer, has played a unique role in linking Wales to modernity in the arts. The opening September weekend of “Albert Herring” was built around a weekend of events at Gregynog. Another rousing performance of “Noye’s Fludde” took place in St Asaph Cathedral. In Theatr Hafren itself artistic director Nicholas Cleobury led one hundred and forty school children in Britten’s “Friday Afternoons.”

“Albert Herring” is as far from the Britten of “Billy Budd” and “Death in Venice” as might be. At its time of production the composer was in love with the lead tenor and the librettist in love with his soprano. A sweetness, albeit with a touch of acerbity to it, pervades. There is also a touch of Ealing and ration-era Britain, when the three kids Emmie, Cis and Harry (Daisy Brown, Caroline Kennedy and Sian Winstanley) smack their lips over the pink blancmange and other piled-high goodies at the upcoming feast for the Loxford Mayday celebration.

Adam Wiltshire’s design captures the haunting eastern shoreline, the polar opposite to the Irish Sea coast. Marram grass on stage blends into a long marshy seafront overhung with North Sea clouds. Neat box hedge cones wittily cover piles of merchandise for Mrs Herring’s shop. A Union Jack leans over on a bent metal pole above a skewed Second World War pillbox. The human mind is built to read symbolism everywhere, even where not intended. A tabloid headline announces that it is the spring of 1979 and Catrin Aur’s Lady Billows has a touch of the new premier to her. Sure enough the wilting Union Jack soon disappears.

Adam Wiltshire is also costume designer. Christopher Turner’s liberated Albert returns from his celebratory spree in town in a denim jacket with AC/DC studs on its back. A flickering strip of neon lights up Loxford’s International Stores. Aberdaron for many years had an International Stores- “international” meaning that it stocked tinned spaghetti. Some of the intended 1900 era detail transfers awkwardly. Annie Gill’s Edwardian mother reaches rather too easily for a fearsome strap. Carts rather than cars feature in offstage mention.

But 1979 itself is now so remote that much of the detail could well be true. School kids in Startrite sandals probably did roam around freely. Rebecca Van den Berg’s Miss Wordsworth has the hope and perseverance that any teacher has always needed. Small town life has its perennial snitch. Amy J Payne as Florence Pike has a notebook of youthful sins and wanderings, fuelling the elders’ conviction that their town is fast heading the way of Sodom and Gomorrah. If an Agatha Christie plot were to visit Loxford Mrs Pike would be the first for it.

An Ealingesque comedy runs the risk of blandness if there is not a tinge of acid to it. Director Michael Barker-Caven gets it in. Christopher Turner’s Albert, large and ungainly, achieves an authentic poignancy when put on show in his embarrassing smock of white and orange blossom crown. A musical highlight is the last act four-voice lament for the lost hero which moves on to a nine-part tribute.

The thirteen-strong cast also features lovers Sid and Nancy, Matthew Sprange and Máire Flavin, and a trio of village stalwarts played by Gerard Collett, Lee Bowen and Aidan Smith. Diction is as good as the acoustics of the venue. The quality of diction on this leg of the tour is superlative throughout. Nicholas Cleobury’s introduction writes of the “many glories of this tightly controlled, yet humorous and ultimately moving opera.” He is right on all three attributes, translated with aplomb into his production.

“Albert Herring” continues to Pontardawe, Rhosllanerchrugog, Aberdare and venues in England until 12th November.
 

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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