Vancouver Opera

Dates and Venue November 30, December 5, 7 & 8, 2013, 7.30pm (matinee on Sun at 2pm) | Queen Elizabeth Theatre

Albert Herring Lawence Wiliford Sid Aaron Durand Nancy Sylvia Szadovszki Mrs. Herring Rebecca Hass Lady Billows Sally Dibblee Florence Pike Susan Platts Miss Wordsdworth Melanie Krueger Vicar Gedge Peter McGillivray Mayor Upfold Michael Colvin Superintendent Budd Giles Tomkins Emmie Maria Bamford Cis Simone McIntosh Harry Eva Tavares

Conductor Leslie Dala Director Glynis Leyshon Set and Costume Patrick Clark Lighting design Michael Walton Wig Designer Stacey Butterworth Stage Manager Sheila Munn

Sung in English with English surtitles

Reviewer John Jane

Benjamin Britten’s quaint chamber opera brings a taste of charming English village life to Vancouver. Albert Herring is an adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s Le rosier de Madame Husson, transplanted from Northern France to Loxford, East Suffock. If the place actually existed it would likely be close to Britten’s birthplace in Lowestoft. Director Glynis Leyshon has also moved the production setting up by about fifty years to a time close to when it was written in the early nineteen-fifties.

Although taken from a humorous perspective, this musically complex opera explores a community’s reaction to an odd individual. It has the trade-marks of Britten’s affinity with the outsider and perhaps he even saw himself characterized by the protagonist.

The opera opens in the English country garden of the indomitable Lady Billows with her over-worked housekeeper, Florence Pike complaining of the many chores her mistress has given her. She embarks on the first solo aria “One lifetime, one brain, one pair of hands.”

As head of the village May Day Festival, Lady Billows summons the committee to discuss just one item on the agenda: electing a young woman of spotless virtue to be May Queen. Alas, Loxford is bereft of a worthy female candidate, so at Superintendant Budd’s recommendation, they turn to Albert, considered to be church-going and certainly virtuous, to fill in as the May King.

On hearing the news of Albert’s selection later that day, Albert’s mother, Mrs Herring is delighted, especially since the distinction carries a gift of “twenty-five quid (£s).” Albert himself is nonplussed. He recognizes that his presumed virtue comes about more through lack of initiative than from his own firm moral compass.

The ensemble cast are, almost without exception, excellent both in vocal form and acting ability. In particular, Toronto tenor Lawrence Wilford brings insight and passion to his performance in the title role. He draws sympathy with his poignant first act aria “For what,” comparing his life to that of his headstrong friend, Sid. In his second act soul-searching soliloquy “Albert the Good,” already somewhat inebriated from Sid’s spiked lemonade, he shows his determination to untie himself from his mother’s apron strings.

I can’t resist the temptation of acknowledging the juxtaposition of the mischievous Sid and Nancy, convincingly portrayed by Aaron Durand and Sylvia Szadovszki, to their infamously anarchic namesakes (Sid Vicious and girlfriend Nancy Spungen). Ms. Szadovszki brings a smooth mezzo to her role of a complex free spirited Nancy, inspiring Albert to break free of his shyness. Durand also acquits himself well as the roguish Sid in his first act aria “Tickling a trout” convincing Albert to find himself a girlfriend.

Despite looking too youthful, soprano Sally Dibblee is perfect as a Thatcherite Lady Billows, demonstrating her celebrated vocal virtuosity and less renowned penchant for physical comedy.

Leslie Dala superbly led the twelve-piece chamber orchestra, consisting of a string quintet and a woodwind quintet, through Britten's demanding score.

Designer Patrick Clark’s “manicured” sets are certainly evocative of England’s “green and pleasant land.” The traversing platform that carries the detailed Herring greengrocer shop adds extra quality to a fine production.

Not perhaps the best opera Britten ever wrote, but this Vancouver Opera production (a co-production with Pacific Opera Victoria) of Albert Herring is a fitting way to conclude celebrating the composer’s 100th Anniversary (Britten was born on November 22, 1913).

© 2013 John Jane