It has been pointed out to me that I've neglected — forgotten might be the more honest term — to say anything here about the Sydney Conservatorium production of Britten's Albert Herring, which I saw just over two weeks ago. I'm too late now to encourage anybody else to go — but I believe it more or less sold out, so that probably doesn't matter too much anyway, and in any case, the show is definitely worth a mention.
I blush to confess I arrived with more or less zero prior knowledge of the music of Albert Herring. But it's Britten, and Britten and I are very close friends, so as soon as it started it was as if I knew it already. Perhaps I expected something a little lighter — a little sillier, even — but it was all kinds of thrilling to discover the richness and dark corners of this quirky little opera.
David Commisso seemed born for the title role: the moment he shuffled out, everything about him simply was Albert, and he made his way through the part's increasingly taxing music with clear, sweet tone and excellent diction. Nor was he the only excellent male in the cast. Simon Halligan was a marvellously well-acted, kindhearted Sid, Simon Gilkes very convincing as the stuffy Mr Upfold, while David Hidden's beautifully sung Mr Gedge was especially striking, with a talent for making himself understood in even the most tangled ensemble. There was also a gorgeously gruff turn from John Donohoe as Superintendant Budd. Anna Yun sang with rippling, silky tone as Lady Billows. Admittedly she didn't sound at all English or especially matronly, but it was a very appealing performance even so, and she managed, despite her youth, to look the part exceedingly well. Yun was flanked by the dour and officious Florence Pike of Celeste Haworth, who I suspect was not very well; she usually sounds much better. Simone Easthope's Miss Wordsworth was a delight, sung with sparkle and wit, and acted to utter perfection: the scene in which she rehearses the children for their roles at the crowning ceremony was especially hilarious. And speaking of hilarity: Erika Simons, Ali Manifold and Jennifer Bonner as the children in question (Emmie, Cis and Harry respectively) were, individually and collectively, shameless scene-stealers — in the best possible way. Rachel Bate was absolutely lovely, in voice and presence, as Nancy; Agnes Sarkis had a few diction issues but was still suitably blustery — and I understand English is not her first language, which makes her performance here all the more impressive.
Standards of production are generally high at the Con and this was no exception. Tom Healey's production was smart, straightforward and very funny, and made clever use of the Music Workshop stage. Gabrielle Logan's sets were fabulously evocative: a parlour and then a grocery store, brought to life before our eyes and framed by a giant map of England. I was especially impressed by the slickly choreographed set changes, which happened in full view of the audience — the stage has no curtain — without detracting from the orchestral interludes which accompanied them. And above all, let us all hail Stephen Mould, who conducted the SCM Chamber Orchestra with his usual quicksilver brilliance and deep-digging lyricism. Is it mere coincidence, do you think, that every time I run into Stephen Mould, he's conducting one of my favourite composers? First it was Poulenc (La voix humaine in Melbourne), then Janacek (the last two performances of The Makropulos Secret) and now Britten. He's now at OA conducting The Mikado — perhaps he's just the Arthur Sullivan revelation I need.
Like all Con operas, this one was double cast. I wish I'd had a chance to see the other cast: not just for comparison, but for the chance to see this terribly charming show a second time. By way of consolation, however, there's another slice of comedy on the horizon: Il Signor Bruschino opens in just eleven days. I'll be there. Will you?