Albert Herring

Firstly, delighted with myself: I completed the Crosaire crossword in The Irish Times today, most of it in less than an hour as I ate my dinner. One of the very last ones I got was rather nice.

Most uninhibited sort are confused by thief dropping farthing on road (9)

If we ‘confuse’ the letters of the word ‘are’ we get EAR…if we ‘drop’ the abbreviation of farthing (F) from thief we get THIE…and road=street=ST. All that gives us our answer: EARTHIEST (“most uninhibited sort”).

I’ve started working with a young singer/songwriter called Laura Elizabeth. I’ll be doing some playing on recordings she’s planning to make in the next while. Definitely one to watch — I’ll keep you posted. Check out her videos on YouTube.

This evening I went to the Royal Irish Academy of Music’s production of Albert Herring, an opera by Benjamin Britten. It was brilliant. The staging, for a start, was really economically managed, but pleasantly fulsome to set the scene in the happily bustling rural English town. The grocer’s boxes are full, the tables for the May Fair groan with delectable treats. Scenes were changed fluidly, only once requiring crew to come onto the stage. Costumes were a treat — Margaret Bridge as the imperious Lady Billows was gloriously bedecked in sartorial finery (to match her superb singing). Her sidekick, Florence Pike, sported an ominous eyepatch and self-important tweed skirt and jacket. The school mistress, the mayor, the young buck Sid, his sweetheart Nancy, the three kids, Albert, and his mother; all these characters were dressed in the colourful and elegantly practical clothing of an idealised inter-war England. The local policeman and vicar (played outstandingly by Padraic Rowan) wear the uniforms of their stations.

It’s a fairly evenly-distributed score, with everyone getting their chance to shine. Particularly impressive are the ‘crowd’ scenes and one ensemble that comes to mind is the one in the grocer’s in the second act. Mrs Herring and Nancy are joined by the octave-apart unison of the vicar and the school mistress (who, in the tradition of Oscar Wilde’s Dr Chasuble and Miss Prism, seem to have un petit frisson between them) — those pillars of society enveloping the fretting mother and guilt-ridden friend with stoic music. One part that feels underwritten is the mayor, a tenor role that doesn’t seem to add much to the drama. When given the podium at the May Fair to honour the newly-crowned Albert, he goes off on a self-aggrandising tangent about his council’s past achievements. Perhaps a bit of social commentary is being made…?

Britten’s music is wonderful. I’m not familiar with most of his operas, but those I have seen have convinced me that his reputation as a master of the genre is thoroughly deserved. This one, in particular, seems to be a great choice for a university level cast of the calibre of the RIAM singers. The music is supremely challenging for vocalists and orchestra, but marvellously engaging for an audience. What a delight to have such operas in English! I’m looking forward to the next one already.

A old friend of mine, Conor Mitchell, is one composer who is doing brilliant work. I went to see his opera ‘The Musician’, based on the story of the pied piper, in Belfast a few years ago and was blown away by how good it was. He just completed a set of Cabaret Songs to texts by WH Auden and Mark Ravenhill, which will be performed at Britten’s centenary celebrations in Aldeburgh later this year.

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