Phyllida Lloyd's new production of Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring is primarily aimed, one suspects, at those who can't stand the piece. Radical as ever, she has junked much of the paraphernalia that makes the comedy both aggravating and safe. Instead of nostalgia, and the cuteness with which Britten depicts nerdy Albert's rebellion against the strictures of village society, she offers a contemporary parable about moral hypocrisy and repression in parochial middle England.
Lloyd has argued that the opera's starting point - the cover-up necessitated when the village of Loxford can't find a virgin to be Queen of the May - reflects Blairite ideas of spin. Her production, however, is closer to a dissection of Thatcherite social values. The inhabitants of Loxford are the kind of prurient 1980s reactionaries who insisted on the predominance of family values and applauded the introduction of Clause 28. The members of Lady Billows's council salivate over photographs of local girls in compromising situations, all the while fulminating about moral rectitude. Later they assemble like a tribunal in an attempt to pass judgment on Albert's supposed corruption.
Lloyd is unflinching when it comes to the opera's depiction of women as the prime forces of conservatism. You realise with a shock that Lady Billows and Albert's mollycoddling mother look almost interchangeable at the ceremony during which Albert, infantile in white shorts, is crowned May King. Britten, meanwhile, gives us few clues to the nature of the erotic escapade that wrenches Albert from the influence of both women, omitting even the gender of his partner or partners. Lloyd keeps up the ambivalence, allowing Albert to ogle both Nancy and Sid with glowing amazement.
In Iain Paton, Lloyd has found a superlative exponent of the title role. His voice flickering with excitement, he metamorphoses from maladjusted twerp to self-assured hunk before our eyes. The ghastly denizens of Loxford are dominated by Josephine Barstow's vituperative Lady Billows, while a group of extraordinary character portraits include John Graham-Hall's slimeball mayor and Elena Ferrari's ditsy school teacher. But two major flaws seriously compromise the whole. Diction isn't clear, and Lloyd has placed the orchestra on stage, the idea being that the players , got up in blue sashes, form the Loxford town band. The balance throughout comes hopelessly adrift, and James Holmes's sensitive conducting can't prevent the details of Britten's instrumentation from vanishing into obscurity.
In rep until March 15. Box office: 0113-222 6222. Also touring to Newcastle, Salford, Nottingham and Hull.