Albert Herring cast

We watched a charming, tongue-in-cheek Benjamin Britten opera unfold over the weekend as the Vancouver Opera (in its first full co-production with Victoria’s Pacific Opera) presented Albert Herring to a packed audience. To celebrate Britten’s centennial birthday, the Queen E Theatre lobby was festooned with Union Jack flags hanging from all corners, while a Beefeater made the rounds for photo ops.

Composed in the mid-1940’s, Albert Herring explores themes of isolation and alienation in society, brought forth by its protagonist, Albert Herring. He and his Mum run a green grocers in Loxford, East Suffolk. A simple, clean-cut lad, Herring is going about his daily and very routine life when a flurry of activity arrives at the shop’s front door. You see, May Day is upon the village, and the Loxford May Day Committee is hard at work to find a suitable female candidate. When most of the community is chalked up as being immoral (in Lady Billows’s words, “Are all Loxford girls whores?”), a king is proposed.

Lawrence Wiliford, Rebecca Hass; photo by Tim Matheson
[Lawrence Wiliford, Rebecca Hass; photo by Tim Matheson]

Albert (Tenor Lawrence Wiliford) is considered by the group to be as clean as newly-mown hay. Given the choice to abandon the festival or crown Herring as May King, the decision is made to get Albert his crown.

Miss Florence (Susan Platts), Lady Billows’s housekeeper, arrives at Herring’s Green Grocery to alert Albert and Mrs. Herring that the Lady and her posse are on their way. Once all file into the tiny shop, the news is brought forth, much to Albert’s disliking. His Mum however is pleased as punch, especially when the prize involves 25 pounds. Albert continues in protest, with act one closing off as his Mum declares him a “bloody little fool.”

Albert Herring photo

Act two opens with a beautifully colour-coordinated group of revelers dancing around the May Day pole. When shenanigans ensue and Albert becomes drunk for the first time, his eyes open to a completely different side to life, including wishing for love, as he spies on Sid and Nancy during a flirtatious evening rendez-vous. When it appears that he’s gone missing the next morning, the entire village is in panic. Albert eventually springs up, and the group fume that they’ve wasted time worrying about him, courting the theme of isolation.

Finally, Albert has come of age, experiencing a night of debauchery, allowing the village to absorb one shocking truth after the next as he recites the evening’s particulars. All is good when Albert decides to get on his own and explore the world outside both the shop and Loxford.

A beautiful moment in the two hour, 40-minute (including intermission) piece arrives during a musical interlude as we watch the May Day festivities draw to a close and morph into the Herring Grocery set, complete with dramatic lighting and slow-moving performers on stage. It was an unspoken part of the show that nicely sets the scene for the whirlwind of what’s to come.

Albert Herring photo

The stage sets are spectacular, creating depth in the slanted panels going front to back, revealing a floral Union Jack motif. The opening act takes place in Lady Billows’s Conservatory, a beautifully illuminated, dainty garden set enhanced by white and pink flowers and wrought iron furniture. Lighting Designer Michael Walton nicely illuminates Albert Herring’s white May Day suit against the hunter green of the grocery store.

Melanie Krueger; photo by Tim Matheson
[Melanie Krueger; photo by Tim Matheson]

Standout roles include Soprano Sally Dibblee as Lady Billows, Soprano Melanie Krueger as school teacher Miss Wordsworth, the rich, commanding vocal range of Baritone Peter McGillivray as Mr. Gedge (the vicar), and two young village lasses played by Maria Bamford (Emmie) and Simone McIntosh (Cis). Bamford has a crystal-clear voice, her talent likely one to watch, while McIntosh’s scared-stiff presentation of flowers during the May Day party was charming to watch.

Albert Herring May Day party photo by David Cooper

Vancouver Opera’s Albert Herring media release sums up this lightly comedic opera the best: “This brilliant comedy by England’s greatest opera composer is a fast-paced, witty, and devastatingly satirical portrayal of the quaint characters of a closed-in community. Employing a cleverly constituted chamber orchestra, Britten uses his prodigious powers of melodic invention and parody to explore society’s attitudes toward an odd but innocent individual.”

Directed by Glynis Leyshon, Albert Herring continues on December 5 and 7 at 7:30 pm, and on December 8 at 2 pm at the Queen E Theatre. If you’re new to Vancouver Opera productions, mention that you’ve been “flagged”, and you’ll receive a discount on your first ticket purchase.

Where not explicitly mentioned, photos by David Cooper, courtesy Pacific Opera Victoria.

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