Albert Herring, Grand Theatre, Leeds

Belly laughs for hard times
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The Independent Culture

These are hard times for Opera North, as they are for the other permanent opera companies outside London. The Arts Council has told them they must balance their books. This has led to Welsh National Opera cutting weeks out of its touring schedule, and Opera North to drastically reducing the number of operas staged in the current season. This new production of Britten's comedy is only the fourth opera of the season, and only the third to be seen on tour outside Leeds.

Still, no one could accuse ON of playing safe in its choice of productions. Albert Herring is rarely performed, and, although it deserves to be seen, one can understand why. Herring is a comic counterpart to Peter Grimes. The worthies of the East Suffolk town of Loxford cannot find a girl pure enough to be their May Queen, so they go for a May King, choosing the mother-dominated Albert. He is mortified, and uses some of the prize money to spend a night on the town. There is outrage, but he is unrepentant.

It's genuine comic stuff, and Britten's inventive scoring and vocal lines more than match Eric Crozier's witty, lively libretto. But it is too slight a story to sustain an evening. The ending is rather lame, and some of the music perfunctory.

But the whole thing has charm and some deeper resonances, and you could hardly hope to see it better done than in Phyllida Lloyd's subtle and detailed new production. She has moved the action to the present day, which avoids the traps of pseudo-historical whimsy, and placed the instrumental ensemble of 13 players, with the conductor (James Holmes), on stage. This works well, even if it makes considerable demands on the singers.

As Lloyd has said, this is very much an ensemble opera, and there is not a weak link in the cast of singing actors, or acting singers. Susan Bickley makes her Opera North début as Florence Pike, much put-upon factotum to the local aristocrat, Lady Billows.Lady B is played, formidably but without caricature, by Josephine Barstow. It is a role she has already recorded, but that gives us only a part of the complete, intense stage performance she contributes to this production.

The excellent character singer, Eric Roberts, plays the vicar, and John Graham-Hall the mayor, aware that he is not being accorded the respect he thinks he deserves. Jeremy White is the booming policeman drinking beer while his genteel companions enjoy a glass of wine, and Elena Ferrari is the slightly batty schoolteacher, Miss Wordsworth. All these characters are carefully delineated, but played without crudeness or exaggeration.

As Albert, Iain Paton both looks and sounds suitably youthful. When, at the crowning ceremony, he is revealed sitting on a throne wearing white socks and shorts, we sense that this is, for him, the ultimate humiliation. There are plenty of real laughs to be had from this production, and everything is done with such clarity that Albert Herring is sure to be enjoyed even by those who have never seen this opera before.

On tour to Salford, Nottingham, Leeds and Hull until 22 March