Albert Herring is a charmer
A Vancouver Opera and Pacific Opera Victoria production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Friday, November 29. Continues on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday (December 5, 7, and 8)
By the standards of Loxford, East Suffolk, the fictional town in Albert Herring, very few of us would be virtuous enough to earn the top honour of May Queen.
Have you ever answered the door in your nightie? Exposed your ankles in a far-too-short skirt? Gone for an illicit romp in a barn? These are just some of the follies that prompt the May Queen selection committee to nix every girl in town before turning to the squeaky-clean grocer’s son, Albert Herring, to fill the role as May King instead.
The moral shortcomings in Benjamin Britten’s comedic opera might be dated, but the production’s central theme of struggling against societal standards to explore life’s possibilities is as relevant today as it was when it was first composed in 1946 and 1947.
Vancouver Opera and Pacific Opera Victoria, in their first coproduction, plucked the lone comedy from Britten’s repertoire to celebrate his centenary. Packed with laughs, slapstick humour, and in-jokes for opera buffs, the production enjoyed a strong start to its four-performance run at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday.
The large ensemble cast was delightful, though Lawrence Wiliford was a standout in the title role—not just as a tenor, but also as an actor. He was meek and pitiful after Albert’s overbearing mother (mezzo Rebecca Hass) and the committee’s domineering Lady Billows (played by superb soprano Sally Dibblee) bullied him into taking on the May King title. But as the story unfolded, he transformed into a hilarious drunk—withering helplessly into his seat, his legs folding like pretzels when he later tried to walk down the street. This, after his pals Sid and Nancy (coincidentally named, long before the punk version) spiked his lemonade with rum at the May Fair celebrations during which he was crowned.
Director Glynis Leyshon set the production in the 1950s, around the time Britten wrote it rather than at the turn of the last century, in an effort to offer the same 50-year vantage point its original audiences had. To that end, the women’s costumes, by Patrick Clark, were made up of lovely flared dresses—of particular note, Lady B’s eye-catching pink number. Modest by today’s standards, the below-the-knee length offered a scandalous glimpse of the very ankles the committee railed against. Keen-eyed viewers might have noted the hypocrisy, though it was not hard to overlook.
Impossible to miss: the gorgeous, pastel staging. Deep-green backdrops smothered in floral print served as the setting for a sprawling garden, overwhelmingly pink May Fair celebration, and the quaint Herring’s Green Grocery store. Clark, who also designed the sets, hit the mark choosing the colour scheme to evoke themes of renewal and young love.
In contrast to the large, colourful scene was the relatively small 13-piece orchestra, led by conductor Leslie Dala. Though the music varied wildly in tone from the sing-song chants of taunting children to the chaos associated with the meddlesome Sid and Nancy, it was often sparse and unobtrusive. The exception was when the orchestra created sound effects: a chiming clock, a mischievous whistle, bells that rose and fell with Albert’s intoxicated stagger.
The thoroughly engaging production was accessible enough to serve as an excellent entry point for opera newcomers while remaining rich with charm to satisfy long-time fans.