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Benjamin Britten Albert Herring
in London, Glyndebourne and Zurich

1. British Youth Opera at Peacock Theatre, London 14 September 2007

Lady Billows Katherine Broderick
Albert Herring Ben Johnson
Sid Benedict Nelson
Nancy Tania Mandzy
Miss Wordsworth Emma Jayakumar
Mr Gedge David Butt Philip
Mr Upfold Gareth John
Superintendent Budd George Humphreys
Florence Pike Kristen Darragh
Mrs Herring Catherine Hopper
Emmie Anna Patalong
Cis Anna Huntley
Harry Adam Rollingson

Southbank Sinfonia/Peter Robinson
Directed by William Kerley

Designed by Becs Andrews
Lighting Design by David Howe
Movement by Mandy Demetriou

June 21, 1947, GLYNDEBOURNE, England DYNELEY HUSSEY to THE NEW YORK TIMES. June 20 "Albert Herring," the new opera by Benjamin Britten received its first performance tonight, presented by a newly formed company in John Christies Theatre here on Sussex Downs.

It is hard to recall how radically Britten's chamber operas revolutionized the musical world of the '40s. I have been seeing them regularly during half a century, and one cannot pretend to remember every performance of Albert Herring attended. However, one can fairly claim that William Kerley's production with the youthful singers of BYO tops them all.

Glyndebourne revival of 1985, under Bernard Haitink and directed by Peter Hall and
I have been able to make a direct comparison with the DVD.

The sets offer sturdy representations of a stately homestead and a convincing placing of the Greengrocer's shop in a Suffolk village high street (the locale transferred by librettist Eric Crozier from the French original of de Maupassant).

It was good to see it with leading singers of the time, including Alan Opie as Sid; he had taken the same part as a student way back in the '60s, when my small son took the part of the naughty boy Harry at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama some forty years ago, conducted by Vilem Tausky.


Albert Herring at Zurich

When less affluent training companies mount this superbly crafted comic opera, which bids fair to stay in the repertoire indefinitely, cost considerations preclude such opulent stagings as Glyndebourne's and literal representation has had to give way to suggestion and imagination, not necessarily to their disadvantage.

Unusual, and remarkably successful, was Gudrun Hartmann's Zurich recreation of Albert Herring in German for the International Opera Studio (2003); in the underground studio at Zurich Opernhaus - smaller than the Royal Opera House's Linbury Theatre, but more comfortable. Hartmann aimed at generalising the themes of pomposity and intolerance, and she took her conceptual cues from Ponelle, Berghaus and Robert Wilson; stylized movements made for wonderful stage patterns, but vocal and facial expression took care of the details of the interactions in this small microcosm of society with its class divides.

Limitation of stage space spurred fresh invention, as often can happen. Scenery was pared down to a minimum; the greengrocer's shop indicated merely by a row of outsize green apples, no more. A line of slightly sinister dark alcoves, covered with black skins, served for the appointment committee of worthies and replaced a marquee for the coronation feast. Costumes were simple and stylized; the selection committee in black, likewise the stick-thin Lady Billows and her servant Florence, whose revelations were counterpointed by unraveling red threads drawn out by each scandalised listener. The International Opera Studio is a prestigious Swiss equivalent to Suffolk's Pears/Britten School or the international opera training departments in London including BYO. I hope that the Zurich I.O.S. did not fail to film this ground-breaking production?

At the Peacock Theatre, Becs Andews settled for a fairly conventional concept for the economical staging, but with some imaginative twists and others, such as the street outside the shop, which demanded input from the audience. The marquee for Albert's inauguration banquet was put up before our eyes.

I have seen several BYO productions, but with this one the company has, in my opinion, come of age to international standards, and this evening yields nothing to any by leading opera companies with mature international singers to draw upon.

Led by Katherine Broderick and Ben Johnson [illustrated] - who had both been involved in the Wigmore Hall Song Competition during the same week ! - William Kerley's attention to detail enabled all members of the cast to portray their characters in rounded perfection, with impressively coordinated movement (Mandy Demetriou) and a few touches of fantasy in the interludes.

A remarkably satisfying ensemble achievement by everyone involved, and another which I have been been pleased to learn will have been filmed as part of the training function, and deserves to be available for a wider audience.

Peter Grahame Woolf

Addendum; more about the singing:

As the holder of a chaperone’s licence I had the privilege and pleasure of sitting in on BYO’s Albert Herring from the early “blocking” stages in the Archbishop Davidson’s Institute, through sitzproben at The Southbank Sinfonia’s base in St John’s, Waterloo, right up to the dress rehearsal and performances in the Peacock Theatre. Not only did I become very familiar with Eric Crozier’s words and Britten’s music, but I had the chance to see the production develop and mature, and observe the total professionalism of its young cast. Indeed, there was not a single member of it who failed to impress, but I limit my remarks to a personal selection.

With a string of competition successes behind her, Katherine Broderick name is already pretty well known and she was nothing short of magnificent as Lady Billows. It is not at all an easy role to sing, being both very high and at times very low, and this majestic lady always voices her opinions at full volume. I particularly enjoyed the luxuriant mix of vocal colouring which Katherine introduced into her performance, emphasising the rather dotty eccentricity of the character.

Albert is by definition something of a loner, being prevented by his mother from taking part in all normal youthful activities. Ben Johnson tackled his portrayal quite introspectively. I suspect he is a singer who likes to immerse himself thoroughly in a role, and certainly his meticulous approach to both singing and acting resulted in as fine an all round performance as one could wish – very much a name to watch out for in the future.

Both these singers were simultaneously preparing for and competing in the Wigmore International Song Competition, as also was Catherine Hopper. For all her domineering reputation, the part of Mrs Herring doesn’t have the same prominence as the two I have already mentioned. Catherine produced a well-rounded image, and her gently sung description of Albert’s picture “took on the pier at Felixstowe” presented a beautifully judged balance between affection for her lost son and her perpetual obsession with money.

On paper Sid and Nancy should have been the easiest roles to play as they are closest to the singers’ actual age. Tania Mandzy was charmingly sweet voiced to match the a caring concern of a soft hearted Nancy. Her Sid, Benedict Nelson is a young baritone studying on the Opera Course at GSMD who has a real relish for singing in his own language, and is developing something of the same richness of tone as Benjamin Luxon.

Mr Gedge, the Vicar, is written for a very high baritone – indeed I believe that save for a couple of notes, it overlaps with the role of Albert. David Butt Philips has wide experience of singing in the choirs of Brompton Oratory and other London churches; he displayed a lovely purity of tone and put his observation of clerical demeanour to good use.

George Humphreys (Superintendent Budd) was returning to BYO for a second season, and a year has made a real difference to the strength of his now bass voice. He is making something of a reputation as a lieder singer and as the inaugural winner of the newly established Oxford Lieder Scholarship, will be giving his prize winner’s recital on 27 October.

As I was chaperoning Harry (Adam Rollingson), I paid especial attention to the madcap escapades of the three children, singing artfully off key and repeatedly rehearsing their hop scotch and other games to ensure perfect timing and co-ordination. Emma Jayakumar as their teacher Miss Wordsworth sang with precise clarity whilst rounding up her charges like a mother hen.

Of course BYO is in the enviable position of being able to assemble a cast a cast of understudies through to the smallest role, and the shortened performance given by the cover cast on the morning of 15 September was of a very high standard too, with one or two twists thrown in by trainee Assistant Director Ben Occhipinti. In his cast I particularly noted Carthaigh Quill as a punctiliously accuracy Mr Upfold and Laura Woods making her presence felt as the fussily bossy Florence Pike. Both were helped by what seemed to me a slightly slower pace taken by the Assistant Conductor Dominic Grier.

Serena Fenwick

In November, William Kerley will be directing The Magic Flute at Guildhall SMD, where he was in charge of a successful La Finta Semplice in 2005

For Albert Herring on CD, see MP's review of Steuart Bedford's version on Naxos 8.660107-08 [Editor]