Opera North has launched its spring season with Giles Havergal’s 2013 production of Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring, performed (as conceived) in the Howard Assembly Room – the company’s studio space next door to the Grand Theatre. The economics of opera are a dark and dismal science, but one of the few constants is that ticket sales are never the whole story. So if ON has revived a show that can only accommodate an audience of around 300, and which can’t tour, we should assume that’s all priced in. The problem here is that Havergal presents the opera in the round, a practice rarely seen on the unsubsidised stage but beloved by directors who don’t have to worry too much about the paying public.
With seating on three sides of the performance space, the result, as always, is that there are stretches where at least some of the audience can’t see the performers’ faces, or hear what they’re saying. The problem is made worse by operatic vibrato and a lack of surtitles – a real pity when you’ve got an artist as fine as Judith Howarth playing Lady Billows; a character who’s been described as the Lady Bracknell of opera. The ripe, upholstered grandeur of Howarth’s tone is as splendid as ever but the actual words are often a blur, and it’s not her fault. Eric Crozier’s libretto is one of the best that Britten ever had: it’d be good to hear rather more of it. If you can get past the acoustic issues, this staging is fun – in fact, thanks to revival director Elaine Tyler-Hall, it positively pings along. The venue is completely carpeted with greengrocers’ grass (Albert is the village greengrocer, after all) and the cast bustle in and out while the village brats pop up in the balcony to chant their taunts.