Albert Herring

Barbican Hall, London
Tim Ashley
Fri 12 Oct 2001 19.00 EDT

Some people are allergic to Albert Herring. It's easy to dismiss Britten's 1947 comedy of rural English manners as dated and parochial, or to see it as an overblown expansion of material seemingly too thin for operatic treatment. The plot is slight. The characters - an array of provincial townies welded into a hierarchical order by rigid structures of class and wealth - veer towards stereotype. A whiff of sexism lurks over the piece - Albert is elected May King in default of there being a virginal woman available to act as Queen of the fete - while Britten's handling of his hero's alcohol-induced rebellion - sexual extravagance is hinted at rather than specified - now strikes us as irredeemably coy.

Yet this beautifully judged concert performance with Richard Hickox conducting the City of London Sinfonia, also served as a reminder that this remains one of Britten's most subtle and anarchic scores. Social and moral order, tragically triumphant in his other operas, is here gleefully and irrevocably overturned. Hickox probes beneath the facades of stereotype and parody to reveal figures of genuine flesh and blood, riddled with moral and emotional ambiguities. Lady Billows's Wagnerian invective - voiced with unusual glamour by Susan Bullock - is undercut with a restless, prurient sexuality. The venality of Albert's ghastly mother (Anne Collins, at once funny and terrifying) is grimly stressed.

Hickox, rightly, makes the great threnody the high point of the work, as barriers of class, wealth and moral standpoint dissolve and the characters are briefly united in genuine grief for Albert, whom they erroneously presume dead. Albert himself, played by James Gilchrist, is gawkily loveable, though the bitterness and resentment that lurk behind his apparent naivety are palpable from the off. Pamela Helen Stephen and Roderick Williams are finely sensual as the lovers Nancy and Sid, while Lady Billows's horrendous cronies include such wonderful portraits as Robert Tear's loquacious mayor and Rebecca Evans' supremely ditsy school teacher.

The City of London Sinfonia, meanwhile, play it all with flawless virtuosity, exposing every tremulous flicker of colour and emotion. I have to confess to still being among the doubters as far as the work is concerned - but I don't think I've ever enjoyed it this much before.