It was appropriate that the British Youth Opera should follow up their Magic Flute with an Albert Herring: Benjamin Britten was inspired by the serious comedy of Cosi fan tutte to employ the Mozartian mix of recitatives and set numbers. With a tiny wind-and-string ensemble plus piano, and by relocating a Guy de Maupassant story to Suffolk, he created the finest English chamber opera to date.
Yet when the curtain rose on this production, we could have been in the 19th-century Bohemia of The Bartered Bride rather than in turn-of-the-century "Loxford". This was partly due to the doll's house sets, partly because the hero seemed a subtler version of the simpleton in Smetana's opera; mostly, though, it was apparent in the clumsy innocence with which director William Kerley had presented the inhabitants of his village.
In this drama, every voice must be that of a soloist, and when the principal characters take their turn in the spotlight for the opening debate, it's clear these young singers are up to the job. After Lady Billows (Katherine Broderick) has made her entrance with splendid gravitas, the vicar (David Butt-Philip), the housekeeper (Kristen Darragh), the headmistress (Emma Jayakumar), and the mayor (Gareth John) all step forward to deliver their pieces, like characters in a Cruikshank cartoon. Britten's score is full of pastiche: although the Southbank Sinfonia cannot yet produce the requisite needle-sharp underpinning, the changing colours came brightly through.
When Ben Johnson made his entry as Albert, bustling round his shop while Sid and Nancy (Benedict Nelson and Tania Mandzy) pushed him around, we had the full roster, and events could start to unfold. This is a tale of an oppressed young man who is made to get drunk and thus finds himself, and Johnson's portrayal of this development was masterly. There was no whiff of suppressed homosexuality: just a boy needing to say no to his domineering mother, and yes to a paid-for roll in the hay. The only directorial weakness lay in the supernumeraries rushing about to cover the interludes: otherwise this was an exemplary show.
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