'Albert Herring' in Florence
impresses GIUSEPPE PENNISI
impresses GIUSEPPE PENNISI
Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring is a staple of British, North American and Australian opera houses. It is a brilliant comic opera, as sparkling as an icy cup of high class champagne. It requires a simple stage set and an orchestra of twelve soloists where each instrument is closely linked to a character on stage. It can easily move from city to city. Finally, it is perfect for young voices and singers with great ability to act; thus, it is often a choice of music schools. It is also frequently seen and heard in Germany and Central Europe because it is very funny and has a key message against hypocritical petty middle class. Most M&V readers will be familiar with the plot (based on a Guy de Maupassant novel) and with the lovely libretto by Eric Crozier.
However, Albert Herring is a rarity in Italy. It was staged for a few nights in Florence in the Teatro della Pergola in 1968 and in a few theaters of the southern regions in 2004. I have no memory of other productions, except a one-evening-import from Britain by the Associazione Filarmonica Romana some forty years ago.
I was at the Teatro della Pergola in Florence on the 21 May 2016 opening night. I hope that this new British and Italian production will travel to other European opera houses because it is just a delight. The stage direction by Alessandro Talevi and the sets and costumes by Madeleine Boyd are designed for a swift action. With a few props and a curtain, the single set transforms the location quickly from Lady Billows' pretentious palace to Mrs Herring's fruit and vegetable shop, the church, the banquet room and the central square of the East Suffolk village which contains the Herrings' store and house. The singers — S Furness, O Boylan, R Kelly, P Smith, G Sborgi, A Gillingham, C Lemmings, Z Altman, K Huml, M Custer, B Callaghan, S Gallagher and N Challier — have good voices and are excellent actors too. All fit the score and the stage well. Albert Herring is mostly an ensemble opera, with only one recitative and aria by the title role (Sam Furness) in the second act. In between ensembles, there are some 'chit-chat' moments — eg in the conversation between Sid (Philip Smith) and Nancy (Rachel Kelly).
The conductor (Jonathan Webb) is the key to the success of the production because, as mentioned, each character on stage except Albert is associated with an instrument in the pit. For the title role, especially in the recitative and aria in the second act, all twelve instrumentalists provide a carpet of sound. Jonathan Webb handled this quite well, and was especially good in dealing with the delicate counterpoint.
Thus, this was an excellent performance which I intend to propose for the 'Premio Abbiati' — the yearly award presented by the National Association of Italian Music Critics to the best opera production and performance.
However, the small eight hundred seat Teatro della Pergola was only half full for the opening night. I have already discussed the financial problems of Florence opera houses (See Troubles in Florence, 2 May 2015 and 7 May 2013). The issue here is much deeper: disaffection of the audience.