That last train problem (or why start Albert Herring at 7.45?)

5 Oct

When I go to the opera I usually have three options for getting home: the 22.47 which gets me in bed by midnight and is my preferred option; the 00.05 which involves hanging round Victoria, all the disadvantages of the last train and its habitués and a 01.45 bedtime (not great if you’re getting up four and a quarter hours later); and the 23.06 and a £25 taxi ride.  So, round about the 22.15 mark at the opera (and at times even earlier) I find myself distracted by the question: “is this worth missing the 22.47 for?”.  If the performance isn’t over by 22.25 then the chances of me getting that train are remote.  At least one of the advantages of online booking is that, with a bit of luck and care I can choose an aisle seat or one from which I can make an unobtrusive-ish exit should I decide that the train is more important than seeing the ending.  So, when in future I refer to the “22.47 test”, you will know what I mean.

This question arose particularly at English Touring Opera’s performance of Albert Herring at the Linbury on 4th October.  Herring is one of my very favourite operas and this was a very enjoyable performance of it.  But I’ve seen it several times before and, at 22.20, the threnody had just ended and I know the piece well enough to know that that it would be inconveniently after 22.25 before it finished.  I was sitting at the end of a row and I legged it.  What made me angry was that the performance began at 19.45.  Why?  Every sensible opera house begins at its shows at 19.30 at the latest (unless it’s something like Elektra – and I’m thinking of starting a campaign to have that starting them too) and, had ETO done so on this occasion, I would have had time to enjoy, applaud and be happy instead of feeling a nagging regret that I’d missed the last few minutes.  Why alienate your punters like this – particularly since you’ve long stopped visiting anywhere as metropolitan as Brighton these days.

Having got that off my chest, there was a huge amount to enjoy about this performance.  Let’s begin with the crisp, alert, witty, detailed conducting from Michael Rosewell, who pointed the chuckling and subversion of the strings and bassoon and the wistful richness of the clarinets to perfection.  The subtleties of the chamber score came over really well in this theatre.

There was also a lot to enjoy among in the performances.  Two struck me as outstanding.  Jennifer Rhys-Davies made a fearlessly sung and thoroughly fearsome Lady Billows, whom you would not want to meet on a dark night: I can’t say how it would work in a larger house but here she felt like the best Lady Billows that I’ve seen and got more words across than most others.  Charles Rice as Sid grabbed this gift of a role and sang it with a really fine nut-brown baritone and looked absolutely right as the local jack-the-lad.  He’s someone to watch.

The others were excellent, too. Rosie Aldridge was a younger than usual Florence in a trouser suit with a cigarette (Lady Billow’s reaction, “nasty masculine smell” pretty much confirmed the likely sexual orientation of this character), but here is a mezzo to reckon with.  Anna-Clare Monk was a sweetly sung, innocent Miss Wordsworth, Charles Johnston was a hearty vicar and Timothy Dawkins a very nicely understated Budd.

I was less sure about Clarissa Meek as Mrs Herring: she struck me as much better being, well, meek to the gentry than bullying Albert.

And then there was Mark Wilde as Albert who reminded you what a difficult role this can be.  In the early scenes he made hulking Albert, with a twitch and you wondered whether he was taking on too much the “bit simple, of course” description from the first scene.  He made quite a strong transformation after the wedding and sang the words well.  Equally, though, I wondered if he wasn’t just a bit old and experienced for the role.  The best Alberts that I’ve seen have tended to be the ones just beginning on their careers and not long out of music college.  Notwithstanding Pears, this is an role that needs something a bit less studied than, I felt, Wilde provided.

Christopher Rolls promised us “Another queer version of a Britten family”.  What we got was an alert, intelligent performance by a set of individuals and, Florence apart and unless I missed something in the last few minutes, nothing particularly Queer.  The set was a wooden frame, rather like a cage in which furniture was moved to suggest the different locations.  The costumes suggested a ’30s or, given Sid’s uniform in Act 3, perhaps ’40s setting.  What you got was a sense of community, of characters who had lived with each other and knew each other and who reacted intelligently to the words.  There were things that I missed from the classic Peter Hall Glyndebourne production but other ideas that worked just as well.  I thought, for example, that his very simple staging of the threnody worked far better than Hall’s more elaboartely choreographed version.

I know that some Serious People in the opera world hate this piece.  I can’t for the life of me think why: it’s one of the perfect comedies in the repertory with Britten as the outsider subverting and questioning their values and, above all, with a passion for youth and the future.  It’s a joyous piece and this was a lovely performance.  If only it had started 15 minutes earlier…

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