Albert Herring is perhaps the only theatrical context in which you will see someone sing opera with a half-chewed banana in their gob. The comedic opera, composed by England’s Benjamin Britten, contained lots of delicious humour, like when Lady Billows’s maid fell asleep and her face fell in a cake. Performed in its language of origin – English – the opera featured Danish subtitles, drawing a diverse crowd to Det Kongelige Teater’s Gamle Scene.
Playing on contrasts, the music was complex compared to the light-hearted subject matter. Gert Henning-Jensen played the oppressed misfit Albert Herring very well, while Ylva Kihlberg, who played Lady Billows, was a convincing snob with an outstanding voice.
The set was minimalistic – perhaps thanks to some Scandinavian influence seeping through the design concept. The action was set against a frame that resembled the shell of a dollhouse. Small white structures in the foreground formed simplistic representations of village buildings: churches, shops and dwellings. These hollow white boxes also served the clever purpose of storing props, and a larger rectangular one even hid Albert Herring. At the end of the opera, the players wore the structures on their heads – a likely symbol of society’s inclination to categorise people in boxes.
Aside from the set design, there were other traces of Scandinavia in the production. Cultural references to common Danish things, like marzipan, were cleverly included – the show, after all, had to appeal to a Danish audience. Even in the description of Albert Herring’s night of debauchery, it is mentioned that he travelled from pub to pub by bicycle. But the tiny Danish flags pitched on a cake celebrating the protagonist’s coronation were perhaps an oversight.
Union flags were suitably present elsewhere. The curtains opened to a large hanging flag and Albert Herring wore union flag underpants. The costumes were inspired by the 1940s – the decade in which the opera was written. Lady Billows wore highly pretentious – yet somewhat comical – fox heads as shoes, while one music student dressed as a monkey had an ear ripped off by his disgruntled singing teacher. During Albert Herring’s awakening as a breakaway from the bourgeoisie of his village, an unknown, unspeaking male ran around in a black leather jacket – perhaps representative of Albert Herring’s newfound rebelliousness and a broader changing of the times.
But the themes failed to awaken the spirit of a lady seated in row L. In fact, they put her to sleep. Undisturbed by the muffled giggles surrounding her, she was roused only by one thunderous snore. This woman was an exception though – the majority met the curtain call with enthusiastic applause.