Review: Albert Herring, Opera North, Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, Friday, January 12th, 2024

It is Spring 1947 in the fictional Suffolk village of Loxford. Hard working greengrocer’s boy and social outsider, Albert Herring, is soon to be crowned May King. Lady Billows, de facto ruler and self-appointed guardian of village morality has decided that the sullied reputation of certain local girls render them unfit for the role of May Queen.

In Benjamin Britten’s greatest comic opera, the composer and his librettist Eric Crozier mirror social and moral attitudes in postwar rural England. Giles Havergal’s energised realisation was conceived for Opera North’s elegant shoe box shaped Howard Assembly Room. The production was staged for the company’s 2013 Festival of Britten’s centenary with the audience seated all round an artificial grass covered performance area.

Leslie Travers’ slick, moveable scenery includes large wooden crates on castors. They swing open to form the butcher’s counter or Albert’s grocery stall with its tempting displays of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Elaine Tyler-Hall is the revival director for the current run of eight performances in Leeds. A formidable ensemble cast of accomplished singing actors and a chamber-size orchestra are conducted, with loving attention to dynamic shading and instrumental colour by Garry Walker. All the voices are beautifully blended in Britten’s big ensembles.

Tenor Dafydd Jones both vocally and dramatically projects Albert Herring’s innocence and initial shyness. The liberated Albert’s return from a night on the tiles becomes all the more shocking - especially for his over-protective mother sung by Claire Pascoe.

Dramatic soprano Judith Howarth is in sovereign vocal command as the redoubtable Lady Billows. Howarth’s last Opera North performances were as Cressida, in William Walton’s opera Troilus and Cressida, at Leeds Town Hall back in 1994.

Heather Shipp as Billows' authoritative housekeeper, Florence Pike, is more than a match for her imperious employer. The young love interest is supplied by Katie Bray as Nancy from the bakery and Dominic Sedgewick as charismatic Sid from the butcher’s. The establishment is represented by Paul Nilon as the Mayor, William Dazeley as the Vicar and Richard Mosley-Evans as Police Superintendent Budd. Amy Freston is a delight as Miss Wordsworth, the enthused school teacher as she rehearses her kids - members of the Opera North Children’s Chorus - for the big day.

Albert Herring continues in repertory at the Howard Assembly Room until 2nd March with sold out performances. Returns may be available. Catch it if you can.