No red herrings: choosing the May Queen

Thursday 13 September 2012

Act 1, Scene 1, and the question on everybody’s lips in Albert Herring is who should be May Queen. The scene is effectively a committee meeting, a means to an end, lacking much physical stage drama. I was slightly disappointed: I had wanted to take some photographs of dramatic facial expressions, I had wanted to hear more about director Chris Rolls’ imaginative vision, his quirky characterisations.

I had clearly underestimated the cast! While the semi-circle in which they were sitting (for rehearsal only) was quite reminiscent of a village gathering, energy levels were as high as ever, truly the “living drama” that conductor Michael Rosewell had expressed a desire for (and that was before the trials of such a notoriously difficult score started to take their toll…). I also managed to capture a fair few fabulous faces (click to view).

What struck me most about the vocal rehearsal was the continued collaboration between conductor and director. Rolls’ dramatic ideals could, of course, not be achieved without their vocal manifestation. Rosewell left no stone unturned in his quest towards perfect articulation, maintaining that all of Britten’s intentions for interpretation should be found in the music – provided the prescribed tempo is adhered to! Meticulously accented cries of “Good MoooornING” created bristling, fearful excitement in a polyphonic colloquial setting.

The committee scene in the 1964 English Chamber Orchestra recording

Rolls had previously encouraged the cast to think about their characters’ backgrounds: who exactly are they speaking to, even during the aforementioned colloquial exchange? What happened at last month’s committee meeting? After these questions were taken into consideration, the vocal effect was on the one hand friendly banter, and on the other, competition between characters pressured to impress Lady Billows with a suitable May Queen.

Rolls also pointed out that although Albert Herring, characteristically of a Britten opera, deals with society’s reaction to an individual, the characters within society as a whole are all individuals too. They root for different May Queens and are only united, in vocal homophony, when it transpires that there is no “winner”, because Budd has preposterously suggested that “Herring’s the name and Herring’s the lad”. Therefore, the cast must strive towards individual identities for their characters and endeavour to portray them on stage.

I couldn’t help thinking about Britten’s own intentions though. Can a theatrical character really possess a profound background? Crozier’s libretto tells the tale of a simple yet virtuous village boy who is crowned May King after his female compatriots don’t make the cut, but gives us little deeper indication. The original source, Maupassant’s novella Le Rosier de Madame Husson, is little better. The audience, by way of the director, must interpret their own character backgrounds if they so wish. And that’s only if they believe that fictional characters can be more than two dimensional stereotypes anyway. Phew!

Verity Bramson is a recent graduate of Cambridge University, marketing intern and champions the promotion of opera for the digital age. Her blog “No Red Herrings” takes a behind the scenes look at ETO’s Autumn 2012 production of Britten’s Albert Herring.

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