Surrey Opera at the Barn Theatre, Oxted, September 23
Surrey Opera's choice of venue for its production of Albert Herring gave it a head start even before the first note was struck: the Barn Theatre, with its half-timbered charm, intimate scale and village-hall ambience, could have been transplanted from Albert Herring's Loxford itself. Britten's gallery of village worthies looked quite at home, and one wondered whether the good people of Oxted – a well-heeled and determinedly pretty town in Surrey’s rural commuter belt – recognized any of their own neighbours in the line-up.
The slightest hint of pretentiousness would have ruined this built-in advantage; thankfully, Joe Austin's production played it straight. Only some odd posturing and arm-waving by the principals during the Act 3 lament struck a jarring note. Simon Kenny's set was ingenious; I particularly liked the way the interior of the Herring greengrocery was deftly swung round so that the audience could follow characters out into the street and back again. The costuming was more hit and miss. Although the programme note placed the action specifically in 1929, styles ranged from authentic 1940s (Miss Wordsworth, Nancy) to contemporary M&S (Mrs Herring). Such inconsistencies aside, this was a well-judged production, although I wonder how strongly it would come across in a less felicitous venue.
But with Albert Herring, the staging is secondary to the characterization; for the piece to work effectively, we must be able not only to recognize the stereotypes of English society but also to understand the humanity behind them. Surrey Opera's strong cast excelled. I was initially worried that Greg Tassell in the title role would be too stolid and morose to provide the evening’s beating heart. But he unbuttoned beautifully in Act 2 and his Albert was the more touching for his slightly solemn demeanour. Paul Sheehan commanded the stage as a swaggering, somewhat dangerous and well-sung Sid. He was partnered by a delicious Nancy in Rose Nolan, who sang with rich-toned relish, acted with poise and sensitivity, and looked exquisite.
Particularly memorable among the bunch of Loxford do-gooders were the Florence Pike of Susan Moore, deftly comic and ripely sung, and the Miss Wordsworth of Sera Ann Baines, whose soaring soprano was a thrilling highlight. Lady Billows was sung by the cover, Joanna Weeks, who made a fine impression. Tall and elegant – more bullet-proof frigate than stately galleon – she sang with steely authority. Patricia Robertson was a vivid Mrs Herring. Tim Baldwin as Mr Gedge, Cheyney Kent as Superintendent Budd and Jeremy Vinogradov as Mr Upfold provided foils to this line-up of formidable females, and Amy Worsfold, Rebecca Henning and Ross Lloyd were delightful as Emmie, Cis and Harry. Vocally, only Vinogradov struggled; his voice was grainy and seriously pushed at the top. This was apparently his first tenor role; perhaps he should consider returning to the baritone repertoire. Unserpinning an impressive evening was the conductor Jonathan Butcher, who drew a fine performance from his excellect orchestra.