Monday, October 1, 2012


Robert Shearer as Albert Herring
Music: Benjamin Britten.
Libretto: Eric Crozier
Conductor: Rick Prackhoff.
 Director: Caroline Stacey
 Set Design: Gillian Schwab
Costume Design: Imogen Keen,
Lighting Design: P.J. Williams.
 Vocal Coach: Alan Hicks
Orchestra Leader: Barbara Jane Gilby
Presented by: ANU School of Music and The Street Theatre      
The Street Theatre - Friday 27th September 2012.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Written as a chamber opera for an ensemble cast of equals, “Albert Herring” is a near-perfect melding of music, words and story, and with its cast of eccentric characters, a perfect choice to showcase the talents of the current crop of Canberra School of Music students.

The opera follows the story of a mummy’s boy, the virginal and eponymous, Albert Herring (Robert Shearer), who is crowned “May King” when no girl in the village can be found who meets the puritanical standards set by the autocratic and overbearing Lady Billows (Alexandra Dalman) and her retinue of comical sycophants on the Festival Committee who include the reticent Vicar, Mr. Gedge (Joshua Burke), The self-important Mayor, Mr. Upfold (Norman Meader), The  Superintendent of Police, Budd (Patrick Baker), and the teacher, Miss Wordsworth (Jessica Westcott).

Livia Brash - Rohan Thatcher
Not all the inhabitants of the village however pretend to be such goody two shoes. A trio of youngsters (Jessica Harper, Keren Dalzell, and Madeline Anderson) seem intent on causing chaos at every opportunity, and when Butcher-boy Sid (Rohan Thatcher) and his girlfriend Nancy (Livia Brash) decide to spice up proceeding by spiking Albert’s lemonade at the crowning ceremony, chaos is exactly the result.  

Director, Caroline Stacey, knows how to delineate each character to maximum comic affect, and by choosing to present the opera in an abstract, rather than naturalistic, setting, has provided opportunities for her cast to develop characterisations outside the obvious stereotypes, so that in this production Lady Billows’ housekeeper, Florence Pike, (arrestingly performed by Julia Wee) wears severe jacket and trousers instead of the expected dress and apron.  The Mayor Mr. Upfold carries his own set of steps ever-ready for the media opportunity and the three little girls wear balloon-like dresses. It's all great fun.  
This idea is carried through Gillian Schwab imaginative set design - apart from the unfortunate white curtain draped half-mast across the stage for the opening scene. The colourfully-lit hanging fruit baskets, and moveable fruit-display stands, providing a deliciously zany environment for Stacey’s peripatetic direction for the early stages of the opera, then, adapting very effectively for the static final ensemble numbers.

Imogen Keen’s costumes added to the jollity, particularly her use of faux fur, and the colourful, all -envelloping surreal coats for the final scene which cleverly combined spectacle and playfullness.

Given the ambitious nature of this production, (some of the roles had double-casting for other performances) the consistently high standard of singing throughout was impressive. Among the outstanding performances was Robert Shearer’s confident portrayal of Albert Herring; his transition from gormless to confident young greengrocer being beautifully realised.  Julia Wee’s impressive contralto as Florence Pike, Livia Brash and Rohan Thatcher cheekily sensuous as Sid and Nancy, Norman Meader’s delightfully stupid Mr. Upfold, Jessica Westcott’s soaring soprano as the schoolteacher, Mrs Wordsworth and Kathryn Jenkinson’s portrayal of Albert’s mother, Mrs Herring.

Benjamin Britten has written this opera to be accompanied by a 13 piece virtuoso orchestra. The orchestra assembled for this production certainly met that qualification and the exceptionally fine playing, under the baton of Conductor Rick Prackhoff, added additional pleasure to a confident and memorable production.