Albert Herring, Glyndebourne Festival, Glyndebourne
Friday 20 June 2008
Intriguingly, there was to have been a sequel to Albert Herring. Britten was out of the picture by then, but his excellent librettist, Eric Crozier, had supposedly made a start on it before he died. Had he taken his lead from the original source, a short story by Guy de Maupassant? Were things to end badly for Albert? Or, having asserted his independence, might Albert have gone on to become Mayor?
In this revival of Peter Hall's now classic Glyndebourne production, he has – meaning that John Graham-Hall, who created the title role, is now Mr Upfold, the Mayor, and, judging by the gentleman's stentorian delivery, has at last learnt to make himself heard.
Albert Herring was premiered at Glyndebourne, so it was only appropriate that this little bit of Suffolk should feel at home in leafiest Sussex. In John Gunter's stunningly realistic designs, Lady Billows' mansion bears more than a passing resemblance to Glyndebourne itself, and when she, in the indomitable form and voice of Gwynne Geyer (roundly echoed by Susan Gorton as her housekeeper Florence Pike), delivers the first of her hellfire sermons, the sky darkens, thunder rumbles, and down comes the rain to dampen picnics on the lawns outside her crested windows.
The marvellous thing about Britten's opera, and this staging of it, lies in the richness of the detailing. From the narrative brilliance of Britten's tiny parlour piano-led orchestra – a miniature but highly "vocal" London Philharmonic under Gerard Korsten – through every one of the opera's perfectly etched characters, a fertile imagination is at work.
Glyndebourne has always cast it well, and Graham-Hall is not the only original cast member to have metamorphosed into a different role. Alan Opie, the original Sid, is now the unctuous vicar, Mr Gedge, whose pious music assumes an almost Andrew Lloyd Webberesque sweetness. Then there's the head teacher at the church school, Miss Wordsworth, whose insufferably prim chirrupings are pitched higher than a dog can hear by the excellent Malin Christensson. And there's also Superintendent Budd (Brindley Sherratt), whose bass grumblings are a constant reminder that the long arm of the law will take you down.
The disastrous May Day celebration – Albert's reluctant coronation as "King of the May" – is most brilliantly done, a series of inept speeches climaxing in Lady Billows' own. Using clichés like WMDs, Geyer's performance would frighten the horses in all the neighbouring counties.
And what a Glyndebourne debut for young Allan Clayton as Albert. Taking his cue from the lonely flute and bass-clarinet interlude into the final act, he portrays Albert's isolation with truthfulness, singing beautifully of his dreams and earnestly of his frustrations. This Albert is unlikely to join the ranks of Foxe's Book of Martyrs, his May Day gift from the pious community. Or if he does, he won't go quietly.
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