In the years immediately after the second world war Benjamin Britten responded to the mood of austerity by focusing on small-scale chamber operas. These are just what a company needs if it goes out on the road and English Touring Opera has turned to the most entertaining of them as a pick-me-up in a similar time of austerity today.
The company’s autumn tour brings together three contrasting 20th-century operas. A rare revival of Peter Maxwell Davies’s mystery tale The Lighthouse is featured alongside Viktor Ullmann’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis, written in a German concentration camp, and Britten’s Albert Herring, as charming as any Ealing comedy from the same years.
Christopher Rolls’s production sensibly keeps the opera in period. It is a shame that the limitations of touring mean the settings are so unatmospheric – Rolls sets the entire opera in a cage, symbolic of the moral repression in a small-town community at the time – but the period is well evoked in detail. This is the world of pink blancmange and peaches at two for a shilling. Lady Billows rules the roost from a drawing room with an aspidistra and a tiger skin, and some of the young men are still in uniform, though not, crucially, the stay-at-home, mum’s-boy Albert.
Casting the title-role is always a challenge. Mark Wilde sings well, but feels too old. It was an intriguing idea to bring Albert closer to Britten’s other outsider anti-heroes by making him a problem child afflicted by a nervous tic, but he is in danger of turning into as much of a caricature as the dreadful town worthies around him.
ETO’s cast has strengths and weaknesses. Jennifer Rhys-Davies is suitably imperious as Lady Billows, though a more solid voice would be nice, and Rosie Aldridge makes a strong impact as her housekeeper. Charles Rice sings well as Sid and there are amusing characterisations from Timothy Dawkins’s Superintendant Budd, Anna-Clare Monk’s unusually sexy Miss Wordsworth and Clarissa Meek as Albert’s mum (a delightful touch when she takes his prize, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, for her bedtime reading). Best of all is the Aurora Orchestra under Michael Rosewell, every soloist a brilliant comic cameo in their own right.