Performed in St. Peter’s College Chapel, this is a beautiful and engaging production. Adapting a French short story by the English composer Benjamin Britton, the action is set in a Suffolk town in April and May 1900. The story is centred around a May festival, for which a committee of characters from the town, such as a policeman, vicar, the mayor and head-teacher must meet to appoint a May Queen, at the house of Lady Billows.
Mayday is still an important festivity in England and the site of the chapel is crucial in crafting an atmosphere of English heritage. As the opera announces itself, Britton was evoking ‘a sense of lost Englishness, through use of outrageous caricature and parochialisms’. Written in the mid 1940s, he looked to provide comic relief for the war and to evoke an imagined past England: with its unusual twist towards the end, Britton’s opera succeeds in poking fun at tradition.
The performance makes full use of the architectural features of the chapel, especially when, at its opening an as yet unseen character sings from a dark corner. This works well with the ambient acoustics of the space. And later, a French Horn player stands in the pulpit, so that the musicians are highly visible; the audience is made aware of instruments throughout. Catriona Bolt’s set is simple but effective and each change in mood is complimented by smooth lighting and scene changes.
Sian Mullet’s engaging solo performance as Lady Billow’s housekeeper at the opening of the play set the tone for the production. Another memorable moment is the duet between Sid the butcher, played by Ivo Almond, and his girlfriend, Nancy (Lila Chrisp), an excellent portrayal of the excitement of burgeoning romance. Margaret Marchetti as Lady Billows is flamboyantly dressed and enacts wonderfully her concerns and emotions about the May celebrations.
Albert Herring is a comic opera, and this production hit just the right sense of fun. The intimate setting allows for close-up interaction with the audience and expressive eye contact from school teacher Miss Wordsworth (Tara Mansfield), maintained audience engagement and combined a comic and dark element throughout. Young actors as the children added a touch of fun, with details such as a ball-game offering a touching sense of English community.
This production vividly evokes a past era: without being too quaint, it is fresh and entertaining and plays delightfully on ideas surrounding traditional English society.