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Britten's Albert Herring at Zurich International Opera Studio, Openhaus Zurich 26 April 2003

The experience of seeing Albert Herring (1947) in 2003, and in German at Zurich's opera house, was slightly daunting in prospect.

How might a Swiss audience, whose culture does not share rural England's Crowning the May Queen custom to celebrate the renewal of Spring, respond to this very English favourite? (The original was, in fact, de Maupassant's story set in France, transferred by Eric Crozier to Britten's Suffolk, Madame Husson becoming Lady Billows).

The International Opera Studio at Zurich is a prestigious Swiss equivalent to Suffolk's Pears/Britten School or the international opera training departments in London's academies - seeing Albert Herring with a student cast inevitably evoked memories of a long ago Guildhall School production in London, with my small son, who went on to become a notable recording singers, as the naughty boy Harry.

Gudrun Hartmann brought Albert Herring to the constricted stage of the underground studio at the Zurich Opernhaus (smaller but more comfortable than the Royal Opera House's Linbury Theatre) and Marie Jeanne Dufour directed her well-rehearsed chamber ensemble of free lance musicians cheek by jowl with the front row. Sly allusions to operatic stereotypes pop up frequently for our knowing delectation, and Britten's orchestration for twelve solo players is still breathtaking, now that the chamber orchestra created for his pioneering early post-war English Opera Group has become a concert standard.

Two complete casts were alternating (with three Lady Billows listed). There really was no weak link in the cast we saw, and the claim that these were future European operatic stars seems well justified.

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 obliged to vote by default for a May King in Lady Billows' Great House. Costumes were simple and stylised; all the members of the selection committee in black, likewise Lady Billows and her servant Florence, whose enquiries had established that there was no suitably unblemished girl that year, those revelations counterpointed by unravelling red threads drawn out by each scandalised listener.

The same set served for the assembly on the great day to hear the song of praise for Albert the Good and speeches in honour of the May King, and for Her Ladyship, in what, more usually, is a marquee for the coronation feast.

Gudrun Hartmann aimed at generalising the themes of pomposity and intolerance, with the repressed outsider breaking away towards independence. She took her conceptual cues from Ponelle, Berghaus and Robert Wilson; stylised movements made for wonderful stage patterns, but vocal and facial expressions took care of the details of the interactions in this small microcosm of society with its class divides. The uncluttered images were far more powerful and resonant than those of Die tote Stadt in the main auditorium and I hope that the Zurich I.O.S. did not fail to film this ground-breaking production, which could easily be mounted on tour and would (with surtitles) transfer well before an English speaking audience.

Pending the possibility of a DVD of Gudrun Hartmann realisation, I recommend Steuart Bedford's recording of Albert Herring, recently re-released by Naxos (CDs 8.660107-08)

Peter Grahame Woolf

Albert Herring continues at Zurich until 10 May
Pictures Copyright:by Suzanne Schwiertz


© Peter Grahame Woolf