Updated: Jul 21
Eric Crozier and Benjamin Britten, after Maupassant
Clonter Opera Theatre
July 14, 16, 17, 19, 21 and 23, 2022; 2 hrs 35 mins plus supper interval (30 mins; 70 mins at some performances)
I love it when an opera company announces Albert Herring. It’s an affectionate send-up of the hypocrisies and absurdities of rural British life, almost like The Archers set to music.
Not precisely the same, of course, but you have the figures of the vicar, the police superintendent, the headmistress of the village school, the mayor, the titled lady who lives in the big house and her housekeeper – and the younger generation: lovebirds Sid and Nancy, plus a few schoolchildren.
Then there’s Albert, the son of the greengrocer’s shop owner, Mrs Herring, and a young man very much under his mother’s thumb.
The story begins when the worthies are seeking a girl of pure and impeccable character to be their Queen of the May… but none of the candidates actually qualifies, on moral grounds. Only shy Albert seems to be an innocent – so they make him King of the May.
Sid and Nancy spike his lemonade with rum at the village fete to celebrate his coronation (what better piece could have been chosen in this year of jubilee fetes left, right and centre?), and with his prize money in his pocket, all unknown to everyone and particularly his mum, Albert goes out on the razzle that night.
What happens next you need to see the opera to enjoy best, so I won’t spoil it, but this is operatic comedy, one of the best ever written. It’s a demanding piece, too, but Clonter Opera, the finishing school based on a Cheshire farm near Jodrell Bank, helping young singers find a bridge between conservatoire training and the professional world, has put all its resources into this production and come up with something rather special.
It's one of the few mainstream operas that a small-scale but well-equipped theatre such as Clonter’s can put on with the orchestral score exactly as written, as Britten wrote it for just 13 players, with the professional Clonter Sinfonia doing sterling duty in the pit under the acute and supportive baton of music director, Philip Sunderland.
The production, by Michael McCaffery, sets the story in 1947 – the year of the first performance, 75 years ago – rather than the original's 1910, and the set and costume design by Bettina John quietly underscore an important aspect of the score: the post-war sense of rejuvenation that was sweeping through Britain at the time.
This is an opera that tells us, without ever stating it out loud, that the older generation, with their prejudices and stuffiness, are on the way out, and the future belongs to the young. John’s design has detailed and authentic-looking sets of dull and faded interiors, contrasting with the brightly coloured (and sometimes near-surreal) costumes of the characters who parade through them.
The Clonter stage revolve is skilfully used to produce successive backdrops, as in the original scenario, and we hear the full musical entr’actes that cover the scene changes (one reason why the full running time is quite long).
As a vehicle for young voices to show their potential, and young performers their abilities, Albert Herring could hardly be bettered. The character studies of Erin Rossington (Lady Billows), Flora Birkbeck (Florence Pike), Jordan Harding (Mr Gedge), Jack Roberts (Mr Upfold) and Thomas Stevenson (Supintendent Budd) are all engagingly realised and strongly sung, and Rosalind Dobson (Miss Wordsworth) has a particular gift for comedy, with just the right touch of exaggeration and an ability to keep reacting in character.
The three children are each played by first-year students of the Royal Northern College of Music – Eirwen Roberts, Myome Mortimer-Davies and Samuel Horton – who enjoy their opportunities for fun and games; and Lydia Shariff, as Mrs Herring, convinces us more than most that she is a generation older than her real age.
But the stand-out performances in a gifted ensemble are from Daniel Kringer as Albert, Thomas Chenhall as Sid, and Frances Gregory as Nancy. Albert is a difficult role to play: he’s not a village idiot, rather a young man who’s never had a chance to spread his wings until the incidents the opera portrays, and he shames his elders in the end. Daniel Kringer’s voice quality is very durable and his diction excellent, and his acting shows Albert learning from his experiences right through to the fascinating line, “I didn’t lay it on too thick, did I?”, which leaves us wondering if he’s smart enough to have been kidding the lot of them with his lurid account of a night on the tiles).
And in this he’s in cahoots with Nancy and Sid, the young couple well aware of the ways of the world and the flesh. Thomas Chenhall and Frances Gregory show themselves to be mature voices and accomplished actors, well equal to the world of the professional stage in which they’re each already busily engaged.
Info and tickets here