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Customer Review

31 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars GEM OF A PERFORMANCE, 29 Oct. 2005
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This review is from: Albert Herring [DVD] [2011] (DVD)
This is a performance of Albert Herring in the opera house for which it was conceived. That first performance was nearly sixty years ago now and, in the wrong production, Eric Crozier's comedy can feel a bit arch and dated these days, even if Britten's musical wit stands up a little better. Let's face it, Albert is a wimp and one night's binge drinking (pace Mr. Blair) ain't necessarily going to change that. What's more - again in the wrong hands - Loxford can end up as a village entirely populated by caricatures, real E.F.Benson Land.
Sir Peter Hall's, however, are the right hands. Maybe it's because he's an East Anglian boy himself and remembers these people, maybe it's just his wealth of theatrical experience, but he never allows his singers to overact or indulge in sending their characters up. The humour in these characters works best if they're left to hang themselves. So the Vicar mouths his platitudes with total conviction; the Mayor, a mere tradesman, struggles to maintain his dignity among his social superiors; the school-teacher is desperate for praise and for people to see how much good influence she has had over her pupils, past and present; the intimidating Lady Billows is here more a character from Saki than from Punch. Most importantly, in the last act everyone takes the presumed death of Albert absolutely seriously. His Mum (Patricia Kern) really becomes a moving, almost tragic figure in her loss. The wonderful Threnody is played, acted and sung straight and works all the better for it. It's only when Albert himself bursts in on the end of it that the retrospective irony becomes clear. Before that, it is as it should be - a genuinely moving moment.
Britten's music is wonderfully inventive and genuinely witty. He was always a master of pastiche (think of the Frank Bridge Variations or the Pyramus & Thisbe play in the Dream - or, in more serious vein, his assimilation of the Balinese gamelan in The Prince of the Pagodas and the Russian Kontakion in the Third Cello Suite). In Albert Herring you'll find witty send-ups of vacuous hymn-tunes that perfectly match Mr. Gedge's platitudes, of Victorian drawing-room ballads ('Is Albert virtuous...'), not to mention the wry Tristan spoofs as Albert drinks his 'potion' or wallows in his tipsy 'dementia' back home afterwards. But you'll also find masses of examples of Britten's ability to conjure magic from his limited group of instrumentalists. The Interlude between the Mayday Festival and Albert's tipsy arrival home, for example, is another of those uniquely evocative Britten nocturnes, comparable with those in The Rape of Lucretia before it and The Turn of the Screw after - the flute turns the horn's brash fanfare from the Festival into a beautiful starlit rhapsody, and the other woodwind combine to magical effect. Throughout, Bernard Haitink is at the helm of his London Philharmonic soloists and singers, producing as great a sense of ensemble in the musical performance as Sir Peter Hall does in the acting. Among all his other attributes, Haitink is a fine if unsung conductor of Britten's music (witness his Peter Grimes), continuing a tradition among Concertgebouw conductors and bringing a refreshing foreigner's perspective to this English music much as he has for Vaughan Williams' symphonies.
All the singers fully live up to their conductor's and director's demands. Outstanding among the village dignitaries are Hammond-Stroud's Vicar (demonstrating, as he always did, that it is possible to combine precise diction with a firm musical line and strong characterisation) and Elizabeth Gale's fluttering Miss Wordsworth. Felicity Palmer has provided us with many great performances late in her career (Klytemnestra, Fricka, Madame de Croissy, etc.). As Florence Pike here, she catches perfectly the social ambitions and frustrations of Lady Billows' housekeeper. Patricia Johnson as her Ladyship is much more than a figure of fun: her notions of good deeds and her prurience drive her to ride roughshod over anyone that gets in her way: she is a really intimidating figure and she sings the part even better than the great Sylvia Fisher. But the cornerstone of this performance is John Graham-Hall's definitive Albert. This was never one of Pears' better parts - while written, as ever, ideally for his voice, the character never really suited him. Graham-Hall catches it all, the wide-eyed innocence, the frustrations, the sexual ache, the defiance and the final triumph as he dispenses Mum and even Lady Billows on their way. Maybe he did steal Nancy away from Sid in the end. And his singing is excellent, too, whether in recitative or in Albert's yearning lyrical phrases ('It seems as clear as clear can be...'). His tipsy scene in the shop after his Coronatium is a triumph.
Hall directs his own production for TV with an admirable focus on character. He is confident enough in his singers' acting abilities to use a lot of close-up. The sets are ideal (Lady Billows' front room bears an uncanny resemblance to Glyndebourne's Organ Room) and the lighting suitably atmospheric whether sunny or rainy, daytime or nightime. If I have one criticism it is that the recorded balance is a bit singer-heavy, sometimes drowning Britten's magical instrumentation. Nevertheless, this is a gem of a performance and highly recommended.
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