Friday, February 8, 2013

Review: (Victoria) Albert Herring

Lawrence Wiliford (photo credit: David Cooper)

A Great Green Union Flag Covered in Pink Carnations
A Deserving Tribute to the Genius of Benjamin Britten and the Sheer Nonsense of Propriety 
by Spencer Malthouse

Pacific Opera Victoria celebrates Benjamin Britten's 100th birthday by presenting his delightful comic opera, Albert Herring. Lauded as the greatest comic opera of the 19th century, the piece is as much a gay satire of English propriety as it is a loving parody of opera. 

Director Glynis Leyshon succeeds in Britten's original intent of producing a post-war comedy complete with chocolate-faced children and a flirtatious vicar. While the work comes across a little treacle sweet, fundamentally this production is about breaking free of societal constraints. The essential comedy of the piece derives from satirizing “the hypocrisies of village life” and triumphing over small-town vacuity. 

The ensemble give a tight performance and clearly enjoy themselves on stage.

The opera is set in the tiny village of Loxford in Suffolk, modelled after Britten's own small-town background. This production takes pastoralism to the extreme describing green leaves on green shrubbery over a green stage against the backdrop of a great green union flag. Even Albert's Green Grocery (a beautifully built piece) is green. The overall effect paints a perfect picture of English Spring, accentuated by pink and white flowers, drapery, and the profoundly pink Lady Billows – a veritable Professor Umbridge in both costume and attitude and played to imperious perfection by Sally Dibblee.

At the open, the task of Lady Billows and the town's preeminent officials is to choose a virtuous May Queen to be celebrated at May Day. The group are frustrated in their efforts by the sheer promiscuity and impertinence of every last village girl. They decide to crown the meek and modest Albert Herring, kept virtuous by his domineering mother, as May King. 

Uncomfortable with having been paraded about as a paragon of virtue and tricked with a tipple of rum in his lemonade, Albert disappears on an all-night bender. Albert blames the harshly judgemental ilk of Lady Billows and his mother for his fall from grace and ultimately decides that excess of drink is just as harmful as excess of zeal.

The ensemble give a tight performance and clearly enjoy themselves on stage. Lawrence Wiliford succeeds in the titular role, playing his character's transformation convincingly. His interpretation of Albert inebriated is spot on and his casual retelling of his debauchery is inspiring to those of us with prying mothers. 

Rebecca Hass lacks the necessary physical presence to play Albert's mother. It is difficult to see how he is kept in check as Mrs. Herring seems a boisterous woman but Hass fades into the background.

The three children are a charming little ensemble that brighten the performance. In particular, Ajay Parikh-Friese as Harry ('arry) plays a lovable young scamp. 
Pacific Opera presents a delightful comedy, which is easily accessible to opera novices and cheekily brilliant for those more experienced. Britten's genius makes Loxford echo with grandiose themes such that a discussion of the weather seems profound and laments for virtue lost are heart-wrenchingly moving dirges. I recommend this piece to anyone who has ever desired to break the rules, even if only to see what life would be like without them.

Albert Herring is playing at the Royal Theatre Victoria February 7, 9, 15th at 8pm and February 17th at 2:30pm. The production is in English with English subtitles.


  1. This looks so good. I wish I could see it.

  2. [Comment sent:]

    Super review. One correction: Albert Herring is a 20th century opera. Two comments: it should not come across "a little treacle sweet", as the humor can be biting, most especially in the music. It is indeed the funniest opera: other comic operas have some funny scenes, and a director can throw in sight gags to get laughs from the audience, but Albert Herring is witty all the way through, not only in the libretto but mostly in the music. E.g., Nancy's lament is in effect a torch song, and the Vicar can lapse into British music hall song.

    Barbara Wollman

    1. I should clarify that I found this particular production a little too treacle sweet. Regarding the music, I quite agree.

      And yes, you are perfectly right, it is a 20th century opera. That was a typo on my part. Well spotted!


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