Albert Herring

CHRISTOPHER SMITH Snape Maltings

CHRISTOPHER SMITH

> Snape Maltings

Benjamin Britten was often in deadly earnest.

On occasion, though, he could be persuaded to let his hair down.

What makes Albert Herring such a splendid comic opera is the way serious themes are turned upside down so we can see the funny side.

Setting the tale of innocence at risk in a Suffolk village, librettist Eric Crozier went after every verbal joke.

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The composer followed suit with a score that is a tapestry of cheeky musical quotations, from Mozart to Wagner to Sullivan and Tin Pan Alley.

A dozen soloists from the Britten-Pears Young Artists Programme seized their chances with fine performances, though more care over diction would sometimes have been welcome.

As Sid, a beefy butcher's boy, Peter McGillivray is a fine baritone, while Julian Hubbard (the Vicar) and Allan Clayton (Albert) are plainly tenors to watch out for. Sarah Estill's Lady Billows is less impressive, substituting bluster for the grand manner, and Cerys Jones is a rather pale Nancy.

The singers are at their best in ensembles. There, in traditional fashion, all the characters come together in ingenious set pieces.

Under Paul Kildea, members of the Britten-Pears Orchestra brought out the wit of what is not just an accomp-animent but an ironic commentary.

At times they could have played more quietly. What is needed is tone and phrasing, not volume.

Lindy Hume's production is inventive, even gimmicky.

A high point is Albert's entry on a chariot that mocks the scallop monument on Aldeburgh beach.

Whether we really need the spectacle of laundry on the washing line is another question.

Snape audiences know their Britten and are perfectly aware what lurks beneath laughter in Albert Herring.