How does a society — especially a small, insular one — treat its most vulnerable, or those it perceives to be vulnerable?
This is the question explored in Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring, which the POV is staging until Feb. 17. The 12-instrument chamber opera is imbued with an almost Broadway musical-esque sensibility thanks to the prominence of the piano in its composition and the English libretto by Eric Crozier. This makes it a perfect, refreshing choice for both the reluctant opera-goer and the frequent attendee.
Albert Herring satirizes the misguided morality of an English village that decides, due to a lack of suitable female candidates, to crown a May Day King rather than the traditional May Day Queen as the symbol of youthful innocence and virginity. Director Glynis Leyshon has set the opera in the 1950s, which works well, as the libretto is equal parts sexually repressed (every girl in the town is derided as an amoral trollop) or gosh-golly ingenuous (the line “keen as Colman’s Mustard” makes a conspicuous appearance).
Albert Herring is a comedic opera, and perhaps because of this, attacks the idea of moral deficiency, but skirts the issue of mental deficiency. The residents of the gossipy English town of Loxford call the opera’s hero “simple,” but we’re never let in on why he’s perceived as such. Sure, he’s painfully nice, easily absorbed in stacking cans and counting change at his family’s greengrocer store and clearly under his domineering mother’s thumb. But Guy de Maupassant, the author of the short story on which Albert Herring is based, was not interested in dissecting an individual’s disorder. He was interested in the societal disorder that is sparked when this individual acts in unexpected ways, showing power and agency no one dreamed him capable of.
Soprano Sally Dibblee is in fine, imperious form as wealthy town matriarch Lady Billows. She continues her streak of playing small-minded women with a big presence, which she began as Elisabetta in POV’s Maria Stuarda last spring. She sets the tone for the opera in the opening moments, brandishing pruning shears as sharp as her tongue while landscapers dutifully push her back and forth on a wheeled ladder so she can trim her hedges. The scene sparks laughter almost immediately and acts a metaphor for Lady Billows’ approach to Loxford. To her mind, it is place full of vices that must be pruned out, particularly amongst the youth. Through consulting a coterie of sycophants (including Loxford’s mayor, played with Ricky Gervais-calibre humour by Michael Colvin), she decides she will make morality attractive by rewarding the one non-corrupt youth in town with both a public crowning and a cash prize. This youth is Albert Herring.
Albert, played by the masterful tenor Lawrence Wiliford, is generally keen to do right, but is mortified by the publicity and fanfare the May Day ceremony bestows on him. His roguish chum Sid (the wonderfully rakish Phillip Addis), decides to slip rum into Albert’s pink lemonade, and Albert’s ensuing night of debauchery turns the town on its head and turns Albert into an empowered young man who believes in the pursuit of sensual pleasure.
The pursuit of sensuous pleasure dominates costume and set designer Patrick Clark’s creations for Albert Herring. His work is a sumptuous springtime treat: greenery runs riot, larger-than-life roses bloom, children wear straw boaters and pastel frocks, tea is served on white wrought-iron patio furnishings and a floor-to-ceiling floral Union Jack wows when the curtain first rises.
Lighting designer Michael Walton has also outdone himself in Albert Herring. From the bright, springtime May Day lighting to the atmospheric mustard glow of the street lamps under which Albert stumbles while drunk on rum, Walton has captured every variation of light that demarcates the days and nights of a village. His work gives the opera time to become silently, subtly reflective in ways operas typically are not.
The Feb. 17 matinee is your last chance to catch this emerald gem of an opera. You’ll also have a chance to catch more of Britten’s work at the Belfry Theatre next month, as Let’s Make an Opera and The Little Sweep run from March 2–10.
Pacific Opera Victoria presents Albert Herring
Feb. 17 @ 2:30 p.m. (pre-show lecture @ 1:30 p.m.)
The Royal Theatre (805 Broughton St.)
Student rush tickets $15 (45 minutes prior to each performance, subject to availability)
Otherwise, tickets are $37.50–$130