I had never been to an opera before, but a bright poster promising ‘sparkling operatic comedy’ taking place on my doorstep was an invitation I couldn’t refuse. I arrived at the Byre expecting singing and, well, beyond that I wasn’t really sure what I expected. Thanks to St Andrews Opera’s stellar production of Albert Herring, I left uplifted and thoroughly entertained.
The Benjamin Britten opera tells of greengrocer Albert Herring, who longs to break free from his mollycoddling mother. The overbearing Lady Billows and her team of moral police (in the form of a schoolteacher, vicar, mayor and constable) decide to crown him May King, as the girls of the village fail to meet their exacting standards of purity.
The staging was fantastic. The decision to set the action in a birdcage, rotated to provide the relevant setting, was an ingenious way to embody the theme of confinement. It also allowed for a hilarious visual joke at the conclusion: a carousel of debauchery cleverly knocking the moralising figures from their pedestals.
While the orchestra occasionally overpowered the singers, the size of the Byre meant this wasn’t a frequent issue and voices carried well on the whole. The varied bright costume colours assigned to the characters packed a visual punch. Lady Billows, for example, wore purple to mirror her high status, while the yellow worn by her committee of local ‘luminaries’ reflected their cowardice, as all accepted her imposing conservatism without challenge. The rainbow of costume played into the overall lighthearted mood of the show, a surface veneer which disguised the more biting social commentary.
Although set at the turn of the century, Britten wrote the opera in 1947, one can’t help but draw parallels not only to his own life, but to more contemporary concerns in the wake of war. Albert’s character bears similarity to the Angry Young Men of the 1950s, rebelling against stifling social expectations in much the same way: sex, alcohol and shouting (though in song). Albert’s situation, however, along with his decision to simply return to life as usual after his rebellion, is more immediately comical than the bleakness that characterises these later dramas.
The opera makes a subtle comment on Albert’s sexuality. We know he has never been involved with a woman, and while we see he has a soft spot for Nancy, there’s ambiguity as to whether or not they get together in the end, clouded further by her romantic involvement with butcher’s boy Sid throughout. Following the May King celebrations, Albert runs away in the night, and when interrogated upon his return it’s unclear exactly what he did and who he did it with (male or female). The characters make their own inferences, as does the audience.
For me, St Andrews Opera’s interpretation of Albert Herring made an ideal introduction to opera. The talent and dedication of all involved succeeded in producing a hilarious glimpse of English village life that resonates far beyond. Consider me converted.