Three new productions of Benjamin Britten’s opera Albert Herring have been mounted around the US in 2010: The Butler Opera Center at the University of Texas in March, Lorin Maazel’s first Castleton Festival in Virginia in July and the much-praised one at Santa Fe Opera in August. Now Director Charles Roe, at the U of A, has thrown his Herring hat into the ring. What he came up with was a kind of easy-going, humorous approach which worked very well for his cast.*
Britten’s Herring is his signature comedy, but one with an intricate musical score. Eric Crozier’s libretto, however, presents a simple plot: Albert Herring‘s story is about a maternally henpecked young man who, at the final curtain, not only grows into his own manhood, but exorcises his co-dependency as well. How to meld Britten’s music and Crozier’s text to produce an enjoyable evening at the opera is a challenge for any director; for the most part, Roe and his forces lived up to the challenge.
First, Roe did not require his cast to mimic the accents from East Suffock County, England where the opera takes place.** Their clear diction and jolly delivery was more than ample to keep Crozier’s text afloat. And better yet, he let his players enjoy their parts without depending on the stereotyped attitudes that Crozier’s storyline made accessible to them. While keeping Britten and Crozier’s original ideas as to characterzations, the cast was uniform in adding individual acting touches that expanded the humor.
Who better to start with than Stephanie Martin’s Lady Billows, the town’s strict arbiter of public morals. While Martin’s Billows had a no-nonsense edge to her public morals, she infused the role with a girlish acceptance over all the attention she received, making her a humorous personality throughout the opera. Makenzie Romriell’s Florence Pike, the Billows’ maid, showed a steady vocal line as she informed the town’s folk of any misbehaving young ladies. Her introspective delivery of the short aria about the weight of her duties, however, made one wish Britten had given her more to sing.
As the four townspeople who came to the Billows’ household to convince her to accept Herring as King of the May, Seth Kershisnik’s Vicar, Asleif Willmer’s Miss Wordworth, L. H. Brown’s the Mayor and, finally, Kyle Connor’s Superintendent Budd kept their characters’ humor specific and entertaining.
Kershisnik’s amiable, vocally comfortable prelate had an eye for Willmer’s Miss Wordworth, not bothered at all by her daffy music lesson for the town’s children in a fine comedic moment in Act Two. Brown’s Mayor was enough of a stuffed shirt to smile about, and Connor gave his Superintendent a light, silly attitude, but his short Act One aria about the wisdom of crowning Herring as May King was convincingly rendered. The fugue-like ensemble that ended Act One was a vocal and dramatic highpoint for the sextet and set the playful tone for the remainder of the opera. And Sally Day’s set for the Billows’ living room with its high white walls and a large sepia-toned period photo as a backdrop placed their humor in a playful modern light, while still set in the early 20th Century. Christopher Allen’s costumes complemented the period, but they needed more colorful details in their design to really stand out.
Two other characters, Sid, the butcher played by Greg Guenther and Ana Miller as Nancy who worked at the bakery are the pillars of support for Albert. Besides encouraging Albert to foster his emotional independence, they are the opera’s romantic couple. Sid’s role is written with a cynical edge towards how the townspeople treat Albert, and Nancy has some misgivings as to the correctness of the couple’s stance in favoring Albert. Guenther’s natural disposition was to play up Sid’s jovial side which worked vocally and dramatically, while Miller’s clear vocals serve her character’s beliefs, but she fell short in acting out the couple’s romantic moments.
Angeline Chairez as Mrs. Herring also contributed clear, straight-forward vocals particularly in her Act Three musings over whether her maternal instincts served Albert wisely. But her portrayal lacked the hardhearted, avaricious attitude called for when she learned that her son was to get 25 pounds along with his crown.
It’s the role of Albert, however, on which the opera’s dramatic core depends. And Dennis Tamblyn succeeded so well in essaying the young man’s anguish and unhappiness over his henpecked life. As Hans Keller states in his short booklet, Covent Garden Operas, “…it is perhaps worth remembering, even as one enjoys it, that real humour cannot exist without an underlying, if often concealed, seriousness.” Britten and Crozier fulfill this prescription by giving Herring two monologues that Tamblyn took to heart. The first, in Act One, Scene 2, showed Herring’s realization that his life up to then had not been rewarding. Tamblyn played it with touches of anger and even belligerence, showing us a more mature character than most interpreters of the role do. And in Act Two, Scene 2, on his return from the festivities celebrating his good fortune, Tamblyn followed the musically rich and dynamic text in which Albert resolves to change his destiny with vocals that exhibited truly fine line readings. On the other hand, in those scenes where Albert shyness and his self-conscious stance about his rewards were evident, there were times when Tamblyn’s comedic acting, while enjoyable, appeared too broad in contrast to Albert’s interior anxieties. One reason might be found in Britten and Crozier’s character writing.
The opera is written with a chamber-size orchestra composed of only 13 members, but Britten offers his instrumentalists some fine solo moments. In Act One, a short cello section handsomely delivered by Milica Zivkovic. In the three musical interludes that Britten portioned out throughout the opera, David Lopez on clarinet and BJ Bedont on the bassoon contributed haunting melodic interpretations. And Lisa Gollenberg’s horn solo at the beginning of Act Two stood out for it accurate depiction of the May Day celebration that was to come. Jackson Warren’s conducting kept a steady hand on the score, perhaps too workman-like in spots where a zippy flourish or two would have helped.
This production gave Roe another feather in his cap to add to his directorial successes that started with Mark Adamo’s Little Women back in 2006, but the opera’s difficult and challenging musical idiom gave Roe and his cast some concern as to how it finally would be performed.
* Albert Herring The University of Arizona Opera Theater with the Arizona Symphony Chamber Ensemble
Charles Roe, artistic director – Jackson Warren, music director
Friday, November 19 and Sunday, November 21, 2010 in Crowder Hall
Cast (in order of appearance)
|Florence Pike||Mackenzie Romriell|
|Miss Wordworth||Asleif Willmer|
|The Vicar||Mackenzie Romriell|
|Miss Wordworth||Seth Kershisnik|
|The Mayor||L. H. Brown|
|Superintendant Budd||Kyle Connor|
|Lady Billows||Stephanie Martin|
|Albert Herring||Dennis Tamblyn|
|Mrs. Herring||Angeline Chairez|
** Synopsis The Village officials meet at the home of the pompous Lady Billows to choose the annual May Queen. But every girl mentioned is accused of some immoral act, and since all parties are sticklers for absolute purity, an impasse is reached. Superintendant Budd solves the problem by proposing a May King, the virtuous, good-as-gold Albert Herring. Albert goes through the ceremony, but a latent rebellion is aroused in him by a liberal dose of rum put in his lemonade by Sid and Nancy, young lovers whom Albert secretly envies. The hero of the day disappears; only his crushed orange-blossom wreath is found. In the midst of the ensuing death watch for him, Albert reappears to disconcert the mourners and to assert his emancipation. A sympathetic kiss from Nancy is his reward.