Opera Reviews: Albert Herring at Buxton Opera Festival, and other opera goings-on
Summer is usually a quiet time here at the OperaWatch offices. We stare out of the window on the 43rd floor of Northern Soul Towers waiting for Autumn and the new opera season. On the few clear days in what has been a typical summer, we can see the Peak District and the spa town of Buxton.
In all my years as Northern Soul’s opera correspondent (two going on three), I have never been to the Buxton Opera Festival. Why? I cannot say other than my fear of the waters (fish make love in it), the unreliability of the British railway system, and the fact that Buxton voted to leave the EU. However, on a sultry day, I put my rational – and irrational – fears aside, and travelled south with my trusted companion and opera encyclopaedia, Dr Andrew Moor.
Like a pair of Victorian sleuths, we arrived in good time to give the place the once over. It was as we expected. The town seemed to be frozen in time warp aspic concocted by Alan Bennett. ‘There’s a chip in the sugar’ became our motto of the day as we found a pleasant French brasserie and treated ourselves to a couple of croques before heading to the Opera House.
We mingled as best we could and tried to fit in with the Buxton matinée crowd. Sipping on our pre-theatre Pimms, it was clear that, in Thatcher’s menacing words, we were not ‘one of them’. Our post-industrial urban work wear stood out amongst the salmon pink linen and pearls. Like the living walking through the waking dead, we mumbled “strong and stable” and “Rees-Mogg for prime minister” to no avail – we were rumbled. The call for curtain up saved our flesh and we made our way to our seats in one piece.
I say this in jest of course, but Benjamin Britten’s comic opera Albert Herring, in some sense, is about the constraints of small town conformity and British traditions. Set in the post-war years of austerity, the Suffolk village of Loxford and its May Festival committee is seeking a virgin for the role of May Queen. As Mrs Wordsworth (Mary Hegarty) reads the shortlist to Lady Billows (Yvonne Howard), the Rev Gedge (Nicolas Merryweather), Mayor Upford (Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts) and Superintendent Budd (John Molloy), it becomes clear that no such virgin exists. A lusty April put an end to May.
In their desperation, they turn to the put-upon son of grocer Mrs Herring (Heather Shipp), the shy and entirely virginal Albert (Bradley Smith). At the festival tea trestle table laden with pork pies, ice cream and jelly, Albert, the new May King, has his lemonade spiked by Sid (Morgan Pearse) and Nancy (Kathryn Rudge). Embarrassed and drunk, Albert disappears into town, seduced by a mysterious stranger (Simeon John-Wake) and embarks on a night of untold debauchery. He returns wiser but unable to take up his role as May King.
It was a great and funny performance conducted with fervour by Justin Boyle. I loved all the singers, but Lady Billows bellowed with range and aplomb as well a comic’s sense of timing. Good luck in her search for next year’s virgin. I promise to return next year, too, for another wonderful day out.
More opera goodness
I only have space for a quick nod to the two other productions I managed to catch in between G&Ts at Festival Square during the recent Manchester International Festival (Oh, how I miss thee!). The Marriage of Kim K, seen at Manchester’s 53Two, was an odd marriage of musical theatre and opera. It was devised by Stephen Hyde and Leo Mercer as the nuptials of Kim Kardashian (Yasemin Mireille) and Kris Humphries (James Edge) and the breakdown of the marriage of Count and Countess Almaviva (Nathan Bellis and Emily Burnett) from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro as seen through the eyes of Stephen Hyde and Amelia Gabriel (themselves), a modern couple with issues. It jollied along very pleasantly but was in danger of being strangled by its own cleverness in the final act. The venue provided its own spatial constraints leading me to wish that I had seen it in a larger venue. Nevertheless, the company has a future and I look forward to its next production.
Verdi’s Otello streamed from the Royal Opera House (and seen by me at Manchester’s HOME) was an excellent production starring the wunderkind Jonas Kaufmann in the lead role, although he was out sung by Marco Vratogna as Iago in the meatier part. My only criticism would be the cartoon blood pouring from Otello’s chest after he stabs himself. Worthy of Jodorowsky himself, and a nightmare for the dry cleaners.
As brilliant as he is, Antonio Pappano continues to conduct as if he is eating meatballs. I tried to calculate how many he ate during the performance but I was distracted by the fake blood.
By Robert Hamilton, Opera Correspondent
The Marriage of Kim K and Otello
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Thought for the Day: “What can it be about low temperatures that sharpens the edges of objects?” ― Ian McEwan