The fictitious English village of Loxford was in quite a comic quandary. Though outwardly prim and proper in its wholesome rustic setting, no young woman listed as a May Queen candidate appeared worthy of its symbol of chastity and purity for the spring festival. In an ill-thought stroke of progressive thinking, however, a May King was decided upon and your heart went out to Loxford’s elected awkward young man, Albert Herring. But despite being mollycoddled by an overbearing mother, Albert showed the village what he’s made of after one huge overnight leap into adulthood’s adventures – all part of Benjamin Britten’s satirical three-act comic chamber opera.

The Committee in Act One. Photograph © Ben Fon

Once again, following a powerfully chilling staging of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites in 2018, the University of Melbourne’s Conservatorium of Music came up with the goods in a beautifully sung, trenchant and multi-perspective staging of Albert Herring. In a literally head-turning experience, the audience becomes completely surrounded by the action and festivities in this cleverly crafted production from director Jane Davidson.

Britten and his librettist Eric Crozier based the work on Guy de Maupassant’s 1887 novella, Le Rosier de Madame Husson, and gave it a 1900 setting. In Davidson’s portrayal, we’re bathed in yellow light before the drama gets underway and sitting around tables with complimentary popcorn for what seemed to evoke a peek into the 1940s, an appropriate update indeed for Britten’s work that premiered in 1947.

The backdrop provided by the wood-panelled dados and ornate Victorian plasterwork of Hawthorn Arts Centre’s old town hall interior are utilised cleverly by designer Matthew Adey. Albert’s mother’s grocer shop is decked out convincingly at one end, Lady Billows’ sitting room and the festival podium are neatly serviced by a platform on one side of the hall, the 13-member orchestra sit on the opposite side and an overhead balcony is perfectly incorporated for lovebirds Sid and Nancy’s street rendezvous. In busying the floor with multiple entrances and exits and pageantry that streams through the hall, the drama hurtles along and the sly comic touches are close at hand. Sourced externally, Karen Blinco and Rose McCormick’s fabulously delineated period costumes contributed immensely to the picture despite some erratic moods in lighting.

On opening night, even though parts of the text evaporated due to acoustic limitations of both the hall and orchestra position, the village cast rose to the challenge of performing across the hall’s expanse. As May Day’s humiliated centre of attention dressed in white with crossed red sashes, a hat rimmed in flowers and bells and ribbons on his trousers, poor Albert was given priceless form by young golden tenor Louis Hurley (Alastair Cooper-Golec alternates in the role). Endearingly interpreted, Hurley made good use of his vocal flexibility in coursing Albert’s often squirming and bemused state as May King to courageous young man returning home after a night of presumed debauchery. Tellingly referred to by Sid as “a very dark horse”, all the way through Hurley’s convincing performance kept you rooting for Albert and feeling his predicament. Albert’s final jubilant offer of “Have a nice peach!” to the assembled folk, who had thought he’d met his death, is the final word on the soft innuendos that sprinkle the story. And with that, you willingly wanted to celebrate Albert’s victory.

It’s hard to imagine a more iron-fisted Lady Billows, Loxford’s May Day festival organiser, as full-bodied soprano Esther Counsel took reign of affairs with intimidating darting eyes. Pounding the floor as she did the text with smashing expressive largesse, Counsel’s big, bold and artful technique was a force to reckon with. Alongside her as Florence Pike, Lady Billows’ officious housekeeper, Emily Barber-Briggs just about stole the night with her severe countenance and eloquently articulated pearly mezzo-soprano that flowed with an utterly natural fit to Florence’s assertive manner.

Darcy Carroll as Sid and Chloë Harris as Nancy. Photograph © Ben Fon

In possession of a vivacious and pure soprano, Amelia Wawrzon easily caught the eye and ear as the chirpy headmistress Miss Wordsworth to the point you wondered why she didn’t herself raise a hand for May Queen. The Vicar received warm, lyrical and prayerful lines from Joshua Erdelyi-Götz and Simon Wright was excellent in colouring his well-meaning Superintendent Budd with regimental stiffness, impeccable diction and brawny bass-baritone. Darcy Carroll’s knockabout Sid and Chloe Harris’ honeyed Nancy paired superbly in amorous and bickering song. Completing the large ensemble, Teresa Ingrilli’s richly sung Mrs Herring and Benjamin Glover’s smug Mayor, along with Daisy Valerio, Phoebe Paine and Alastair Cooper-Golec as the cheeky village kids, added layers of texture to events.

Highlights of vocal sensitivity and blending came in Act 2’s glorious anthem to the newly crowned May King and Act 3’s mournful hymn for Albert around the counter in Mrs Herring’s shop. The only disappointment was in the overall acoustic balance that no doubt depended on where one sat. Nevertheless, conductor Paul Kildea’s lively pacing and the orchestra’s expert adaptability brought out a wealth of charm to Britten’s witty and eclectic score.

Aah, the sense of nostalgia was palpable, the homemade cakes and sandwiches looked delicious and everything seemed just right in a season in which peaches are plump with juice. But under it all, some individuals feel smothered, cast as misfits even, and Britten marvellously gave them a heroic voice, as did Melbourne Conservatorium of Music in their execution of it.

Albert Herring plays at Hawthorn Arts Centre until March 31, Castlemaine Town Hall on April 6 and St John’s Church, Flinders on April 7

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