By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
Los Angeles Opera:
Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring
Friday, February 25, 2012 Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Next performances: March 3, 8 and 14 at 7:30 p.m. March 11
and 18 at 2 p.m.
The Village of Loxford toasts Lady Billows during the May
Festival. (L-r) Richard Bernstein, Alek Shrader, Janis Kelly, Jonathan Michie, Robert McPherson,
Ronnita Nicole Miller and Stacey Tappan. Photo by Robert Millard for LA Opera.
Opera companies can sometimes skate by with mediocre
productions of tragedy/dramas. In some cases (e.g., Tosca) a superb lead may overcome an otherwise uneven cast. At
other times, (e.g., Aida) dramatic
sets can compensate for a lot of problems. Even in a problematic Wagner
production, a great orchestra can make up for many ills.
Comedy in opera is much different. Everything has to work
together expertly to make for a thoroughly enjoyable experience and that goes
double for an unfamiliar work, such as Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring. When Los Angeles Opera opened a six-performance run
of Britten’s chamber opera last night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the
result was a first-rate production that sparkled like a finely tuned Rolex.
The story originated in 1887 as Le Rosier de Madame Husson by Guy de Maupassant, but Britten and
his writer, Eric Crozier, transplanted it to Britten’s home county of Suffolk,
England. Everything in the libretto refers to that part of the world (the
production from Santa Fe Opera updates the story from its original 1900 setting
to 1947, when Britten composed the work; in this case, updating probably
improved the look and feel of the opera). Crozier’s libretto, in rhyming
couplets, is witty and saucy.
Britten’s score is a equally witty, with echoes of Handel,
Elgar, Gilbert and Sullivan and even Wagner. Like G&S, Albert Herring is a spoof on British mores and social-class
snobbery, but it’s also a coming-of-age tale for the title character.
In Loxford, Lady Billows — distressed by the moral decay of
the village’s young people — decides to revive the custom of crowning a May
Queen and offers a cash prize to be given to a virtuous young woman (virtuous,
in this case, equating to virgin), but in the opening act we learn that no one
qualifies. The police superintendent suggest crowning a May King instead.
Albert Herring, a meek, mama’s boy working in mum’s greengrocer shop, meets the
test of the supercilious Lady Billows and her maid cum village morals
policewoman, Florence, and is selected.
Meanwhile, Sid and Nancy, a flirtatious young couple, decide
to encourage Albert to live a little by spiking his lemonade with rum at the
festival where Albert is crowned. Albert imbibes (to strains of the love-potion
theme from Tristan und Isolde) and
later departs to discover the more exciting aspects of life outside of a
village. The next morning, Albert is discovered missing and presumed dead but
while the village mourns the demise of their May King, Albert returns, tells
off his mother and then resumes his life running the grocery store, having
discovered that the life of debauchery wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
It’s hardf to imagine a cast better suited for this opera
and Scottish director Paul Curran, making his company debut, melded them
together as a superb acting ensemble that rivals anything you’ve seen in those
marvelous British movies and/or TV shows (think Gosford Park and you get the picture).
However, even in the midst of that uniform excellence, tenor
Alek Shrader dominated the evening in the title role, portraying Albert as far
more than a simple “Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes” and singing with a pure, elegant voice
that surely would have made Peter Pears (Britten’s life partner and the man for
whom the role was created) proud.
Shrader was one of many in the cast making their LAO debut.
Another was soprano Janis Kelly, who surely didn’t look like an “elderly
aristocrat” (as Lady Billows is described) but certainly captured the
screeching fusspot to perfection. As is often the case, Ronnita Nicole Miller —
who began in the company’s Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program and has
“graduated” to become one of the company’s mainstays — nearly stole the show as
Florence, the housekeeper and investigator of the village’s morals.
Liam Bonner and Daniela Mack were well cast as Sid and
Nancy; Stacey Tappan was a wonderfully prissy school tezcher, Miss Wordsworth;
Robert McPherson displayed his strong tenor voice as Mayor Uffold; Jonathan
Michie was effective as the supercilious Vicar Gedge; Richard Bernstein made
for an excellent Superintendent Budd; and Jane Bunnell was the domineering Mrs.
Herring. Caleb Glickman, Erin Sanzero and Jamie Rose-Guarrine played the
village children with panache.
Albert Herring is
really designed to play in a far-more-intimate theater than the 3,200-seat
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and the sets — designed by Kevin Knight, who also
created the costumes — were a constant reminder of that fact because they
occupied about the middle half of the stage. I don’t know whether Britten
thought of the sets as a parody of old-fashioned opera staging but that’s what
this delightful production turned out to be, although the detailing was richer
than the “standard” cardboard and painted backdrops.
Rick Fisher’s lighting designs were appropriately
atmospheric, particularly in producing the shifts from day to night and back to
day again. James Conlon and an orchestra of 13 (the same number as last
season’s The Turn of the Screw) captured
Britten’s delicate score superbly.
This production of Albert
Herring is richly drawn and superbly acted and sung. Even if Britten isn’t
your cup of tea as a composer or if you were wondering whether it would be
worth your time, make tracks downtown for one of the last performances, if for
no other reason than the uniform excellence throughout this production.
Christine Brewer is slated to play Lady Billows in the
March 11 and 14 performances. She had the role in the Santa Fe Opera production
and her Wagnerian voice will be an interesting contrast to Kelly. Moreover
(without disparaging Ms. Brewer), she looks more like I imagine Lady Billows to
Reportedly LAO was considering presenting the first of
Britten’s three chamber operas, The Rape
of Lucretia, next season (2013 is the centennial of Britten’s birth) but
couldn’t find a production it liked and apparently wasn’t willing to construct
one of its own. Too bad; the first two chamber operas certainly piqued my
interest to see the first of the three, although it would be even better to see
it in a small-sized theater.
The opera ran about 2:50 last night with one intermission.
James Conlon delivered a preconcert lecture that was more
scatter-brained than usual. Perhaps later versions will be less frenetic,
although Conlon did a good job of setting Albert
Herring within the context of other composer’s opera comedies.
There’s no Britten scheduled for the upcoming LAO season
(although Noye’s Fludde will be
presented again in free performances at the Roman Catholic cathedral across the
street from the Music Center) but Conlon said that 2013 would bring more
(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.