Benjamin Britten's comic chamber opera Albert Herring is rarely produced. One of the main reasons for this is that it is very difficult to find singers for the large cast that physically and vocally fit the roles. Further adding to the problems, the opera is written for a small one-on-a-part chamber orchestra that requires excellent players. Thus,h it is too small for a major opera house but has too large a cast for a smaller company to be able to afford. University opera departments would seem to be a good fit for a production, but they lack singers that are old enough to play some of the characters. So, Albert Herring remains an opera more discussed than seen.
With all this in mind, it was welcome news that the opera department at Southern Methodist University's Meadows Opera Theater was mounting a production this week, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the British composer's birthday (why aren't there more Britten tributes in his centennial year?). In order to give many students a chance to sing the roles, most are double cast. (This review was of Thursday's cast; check back Saturday for an addendum about the Friday cast.)
If Albert Herring was being considered for some kind of dramatic treatment today, it would be a sitcom done for the BBC and would star Patricia Routledge, much beloved for her portrayal of Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances. Another possibility would be Mollie Sugden, who brought Mrs. Slocombe, the blue-haired (sometimes purple) manager of the ladies' department in Are You Being Served.
Albert Herring is filled with stock comic characters that inhabit every sitcom about life in a small town—English or otherwise. There is the Vicar, the Mayor, the Chief of Police, the schoolteacher, and various young people who range from boringly well behaved to scandalously mischievous. Even the town of Mayberry, from The Andy Griffith Show, comes to mind.
The plot is simple. The meeting of the town leaders, led by the pompous Lade Billows, is unable to find a suitable and virtuous girl to be the May Queen, thanks to the snooping of Florence Pike, her maid and secretary. There is no alternative for them but to pick Albert Herring, a slow-witted green grocer's boy as May King, a shockingly unprecedented action. Poor Albert has no choice but to reluctantly go along and looks miserable and slightly ridiculous at the investiture banquet. Two local youngsters, Sid and Nancy, decide to pull a prank and replace Albert's lemonade with rum, with disastrous results.
Albert decides that this is his moment to break free of his mum, the shop and his dull turnip filled life. So off he goes, at least for one night, to taste adventure and the wild side. In the last act, since Albert is always in the shop but now he isn't, the town folks think that Albert is probably dead somewhere, or on a roadside, beaten and robbed for his cash prize as May King. Everyone is involved with the search. Of course, the miscreant finally staggers home, bedraggled and smudged, but unharmed.
He has indeed had a wild night, as he gleefully explains to the horror of all those gathered, even to the point of being thrown out of every pub in town for being drunk and disorderly. The opera ends leaving Albert alone, back in his apron and dull duties, with his future undefined. His night on the town "wasn't all that much fun" but then, neither is life among turnips and potatoes.
Many observers have drawn a parallel to the difficulty of a gay couple, Britten and Peter Pears (who originally played Albert), coming out in 1947. Albert's emancipation may have felt freeing to him, but it scandalized everyone else and his reputation in town, we assume from the reaction of all on stage, suffered greatly. This is sadly, much the same with gay couples even today—as the conservatives clamor about the destruction of all civilization should they be allowed to marry. At least that is an improvement over some other countries where being gay is a death sentence.
The witty libretto by Eric Crozier, a close friend of the composer's, is based on Guy de Maupassant's novella Le Rosier de Madame Husson. They moved the setting to the small fictitious British hamlet of Loxford. Britten grew up in just such a town so he personally knew the people on which the characters are based. He also knew the singers who would sing the première. Here, we have an opera that was specifically crafted, by both librettist and composer, for a select group of friends who were outstanding opera singers. This is one reason, among many, that casting is always a problem.
In casting this production, an educational institution is limited, by definition, to young singers, which presents a conundrum. Some of the characters, such as Lady Billows, are supposed to be "of a certain age." Producer/director Hank Hammett wisely decided not to age the singers with various makeup tricks, but this means even the stately Lady Billows looks like she came into her title way ahead of schedule. Albert's mother looks like she must have been a child bride.
(Fortunately, these days, considerations of race and ethnicity in casting have gone the way of the hoop skirt, so no one thinks a thing about this small English Village in the 1940 having an Asian mayor and vicar as well as a mixed-race romance.)
As Lady Billows, soprano Julie Ann Dieltz has all the regal bearing and the powerful voice that this difficult role requires. In about 20 years, she will be perfect. However, once you made that mental age adjustment, she turned in a terrific performance. Most impressive was her voice – she is a powerhouse. She has all the making of that operatic rarity, a true spinto soprano able to sing the big Verdi roles and even eventually move into Wagner and Strauss.
Marisan Corsino brought fine comic skills to her portrayal of Florence Pike, Lady Billows long suffering housekeeper, secretary and village gossip snoop. Whether she was sneaking a cigarette or surreptitiously taking a snort from her ever-present flask, she never crossed the line that separates comedy from farce. Vocally, she was solid through out.
The town leaders formed an amusing quartet and each did their best to create believable characters. Hannah Rigg sailed through a role that is famous for its high tessitura and was a delightfully ditzy as the schoolteacher, Miss Wordsworth. She proudly sported her hopelessly inappropriate frilly dress, blonde Bo Peep ringlets and Mary Janes, compete with lacy ankle socks. Further, she is one of the few actors who can actually pull off a pratfall naturally—and she did it three times. Of course, she is inept as a schoolteacher and her students ignore her when she tries to rehearse them in their song of praise for the May King.
The only one who notices her in this production is the Vicar, who leers at her suggestively every chance he gets. Played by Suyoung Lee, this Vicar loses his propriety whenever Miss Wordworth is around. He has a good baritone voice and sings the role of the Vicar with conviction. His English is hard to understand, but he tries valiantly to pronounce the British version of the English words.
Jeawook Lee has the same diction problem to overcome in his portrayal of Mayor Upfold. However, he is all politician and uses the high tenor range of the part to great effect, making declamations aimed at voters more than singing operatic arias.
Glenn Ayars was wonderful as the harrumphing head of police, Superintendent Budd. He is especially amusing in the last act as he bemoans the difficulties of a missing person case, unlike a simple of murder, where there is a corpse, or even a simple rape.
Nathan De'Shon Myers as Sid and Rachel Alexander as Nancy make an unlikely couple in this production. You would never guess that the randy Sid would be attracted to the matronly Nancy. Both sing their parts with fine voices and make their mismatch work, with Nancy trying in vain to keep Sid under some kind of control.
Albert's long suffering mum is usually portrayed as a tyrannical battleaxe, but Keelin Granahan brings a warm humanity to her, a single mother trying to raise a good boy and keep her dead husband's grocery making them a meager living. She also brought a lovely voice to the part, which helped with her softer interpretation.
This brings us to Alexander Vollmer as Albert. This is a role in the tradition of the slightly slow country bumpkin Nemorino from Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore, another tenor role. He is a big guy and is believable when he needs to loosen his belt after the big feast. He is also believable throughout the role. He is hysterical in the banquet scene in his uncomfortable white suit, tight collar with an unaccustomed tie and a silly hat bedecked with flowers. In the final scene, he is quite moving as he tells the shocked townspeople of his besodden adventures and we genuinely feel for him at the end as he looks forward to an uncertain future. Pears, the original Albert, had an odd voice and all of the roles Britten wrote for his partner suffer from the same weird vocal demands that came so naturally to Pears. However, Vollmer met the challenges and sang the role with more skill than expected from a young tenor.
The sets, by Daniel T. Willis, are effectively lit by Ethan Steimel. Albert's green grocer shop was particularly appealing. A super-sized landscape served as the back of Lady Billow's stuffy parlor while a painted drop, a nice touch of dated stagecraft, created the image of the small town. The costumes by Jessica Colley-Mitchell recall the era, although Albert's outfit for his big day could have been sillier – maybe some inappropriate things that are always given to the May Queen and no ne thought to change them out for a May King.
The one drawback to this production was the diction, every line of Crozier's clever libretto is worth hearing clearly and that didn't happen often enough. The diction problem is somewhat inherent in Albert Herring because it requires British accents. However, no matter what obstacle it tossed in the singer's way, it is incumbent on them to project the text to the audience. This was lacking on Thursday. To add to the problem, the projected supertitles were small and dim, making them hard to read. This is somewhat understandable in that supertitles that translate from a language into English can paraphrase, whereas here, they have to give the complete text, However, one audience member who did not have a good view of the supertitles only got the broadest outline of what was going on and didn't much enjoy the opera.
Albert Herring is written for a reduced orchestra, which means that the complicated and difficult-to-play parts are exposed; there is no sonic place to hide. The score is written for single strings including harp, single woodwinds, one horn and percussion. Britten definitely had Mozart's Marriage of Figaro in mind when he wrote some of the opera in the form of recitatives. Occasionally, the conductor accompanies the recitatives on the piano, but in this production, SMU lecturer and vocal coach Jason Smith does the honors.
The orchestra also takes on the role of a Geek chorus by, not merely accompanying the opera, but musically commenting on the action. He also quotes many of the great operas, but he mimics the style of everyone from Handel and Elgar to Wagner and even Prokofiev. A good example is his quoting from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde whenever Albert drinks, or later refers to, the rum that is the catalyst for his dénouement.
It was hard to believe that this was an all-student orchestra on Thursday. The complex score was so accurately played, with dead-on intonation that you assumed that faculty members were in the pit. It would be superfluous to name any single player because of the ensemble nature of Britten's brilliant orchestration. Let's confer the honors on everyone; the players in the pit were terrific.
Of special note was the conducting of Paul Phillips, SMU Professor and Conductor of the Meadows Symphony. If the orchestral parts are considered very difficult, conducting this score is nothing less than a feat of virtuosity. Phillips is nothing short of amazing as he negotiated all of the prickly meter changes, keeps the players balanced and coordinates everything with the stage. He was always on top of the text, which is not easy to do in this opera. While reservations about his podium style remain, they seemed trivial in light of his superb performance.
Addendum to original review, with a report on the second cast:
Although I had another concert to attend on Friday, I was able to catch the second act of Albert Herring with the second cast of singers. Alternate casts usually present a different take on the character while still staying within the general concepts of the director. The cast for Albert Herring that took the stage on Friday generally fit this expectation, with one amazing exception.
Michelle Alexander, as Lady Billows on Friday, resembled Julie Ann Dieltz, Lady Billows on Thursday, so closely in physicality, voice and characterization that even double-checking the program left some doubt. Perhaps there had been an announcement before the show started that Dieltz would be singing instead of Alexander. However, after some time, the difference in the voices of the two sopranos became more apparent. Alexander has a sharper edge on her voice that usually comes from a technique that makes all of a singer's front upper teeth exposed. Once you have heard this method of singing, you will recognize it every time you hear it.
As the harried schoolteacher Miss Wordsworth, Laura Smith was a calmer and more dignified presence than the wonderfully ditzy and slightly goofy interpretation given by Hannah Rigg. Here is a perfect example of how a characterization can change because of the abilities of the actor without doing damage to the director's concept. Vocally, both singers were excellent.
As Mr. Grudge, the vicar, Daniel Bouchard was the opposite of Suyoung Lee. Both followed the staging in showing their infatuation with Miss Wordsworth. Lee was broader in that he was always pious in demeanor, as if he was about to burst into prayer at any moment. This made his exaggerated and wolfish leer a laugh getter every time. Bouchard was much more outgoing and friendly to everyone, almost like vicar was a political office. Thus, his slight change to suitor when he was near Miss Wordsworth was subtle, but just as funny.
The Sid (Njabulo Mthimkhulu) and Nancy (Rachael Marek) was also a big change from the Thursday cast (Rachael Anderson and Nathan De'Shon Myers). Here, it was Nancy that was in charge and a coconspirator in the prank with her warnings sounding hollow. Her worry in the last scene, when Albert's fate was unknown, had a palatable overlay of guilt that she nicely set up this way in the previous act. All four have impressive voices, but Mthimkhulu was a standout.
The two singers playing Albert's mother were a study in contrasts. Not only were they of different races, but they were two completely different kinds of mothers. On Thursday, when the truant Albert finally returned after his bender, Keelin Granahan delivered the line about wait until I get you alone with warm and fuzzy overtones patting him on the hand. On Friday, Arielle Collier dragged him around by the ear and delivered the line with intensity and an ominous overlay of you-won't-be-able-to-sit-down-for-a week. This is not to say that both didn't express deep love and devotion to Albert.
While both did an admirable job vocally, Collier's voice was the stand out of the evening: dark and lustrous, focused and immense. She is now singing as a mezzo, and that may be where she will stay, but there are some hints that the voice may have soprano possibilities as she gets older. Either way, she has a magnificent instrument.
The two Alberts are also quite different. On Thursday, Alexander Vollmer took his cues from the discretion of Albert as slow-witted. You could see him screw up his brain to try to figure things out. On Friday, Paul Kroeger played Albert as more intelligent that he lets on, using the slow-witted reputation as cover—or perhaps a hiding place. This difference, while subtle, made for a completely different characterization. Both conveyed a resentment to "mum" for keeping him a prisoner of duty, although Kroeger's Albert had a lot more to fear from Collier's portrayal of "mum."
Both have clear lyric tenor voices, but neither were what you want for the role. As previously mentioned, the part was written for Peter Pears, as were all of Britten's operas. His voice was unique and Britten's devoted tailoring of the music to his lover's voice has created a casting headache for opera companies ever since.