Santa Fe Opera scores a comedic triumph with Britten’s wry “Albert Herring”

August 19, 2010

Nancy (Kate Lindsey) and Sid (Joshua Hopkins) cavort as Albert (Alek Shrader) yearns. Photo: Ken Howard

There have been a number of notable firsts at Santa Fe Opera this season, not least the belated local premieres of Tales of Hoffman and Albert Herring, with conductors Stephen Lord and Sir Andrew Davis, respectively, making their company debuts.

Santa Fe’s Offenbach was sabotaged by director Christopher Alden’s revisionist excesses at their worst. Happily, no such disasters were visited upon Albert Herring, heard Wednesday night. With brilliant musical direction by Davis, and a first-rate cast—including star-in-the-making Alek Shrader in the title role—Santa Fe’s premiere production of Britten’s wry comedy was a triumph on every level.

Benjamin Britten’s comedy is a not-so-gentle poke at English middle-class pretensions and moral hypocrisy in a provincial village. Led by the aptly named Lady Billows, the self-appointed guardians of Loxford are in a quandary. With the May Day Festival coming up, it is time to choose a May Queen, yet it seems none of the local maidens are virginal enough to wear the crown.

With no unspotted female candidates available, it is decided to choose a May King instead and the honor will go to Albert Herring—the shy, socially inept grocery clerk who lives with his mother, and of whom there is little doubt of his sexual innocence. Albert is dubious but his mother forces him to accept the title , mainly to get her hands on the 25-pound prize.

At the coronation luncheon, Albert’s friend Sid, the butcher’s assistant, spikes Albert’s lemonade with rum, setting off assorted mayhem with the boy running off to sow his belated wild oats. Albert’s disappearance throws the town into an uproar, and all mourn his apparent death. Ultimately, bedraggled yet triumphant, Albert returns and tells the assembled Loxford burghers of his sinful adventures. His mother and the officials are scandalized but Sid and his girlfriend Nancy congratulate the newly confident Albert on his independence.

Slight stuff, but even with the rapier-like social satire, Britten’s opera has a non-saccharine sweetness and timeless message of rising above one’s stifling social environment to assert personal freedom.

The production was given an immense boost by Kevin Knight’s wonderful scenic design, with his pinpoint set for Lady Billows living room, a withering visual deconstruction of 1940s English bourgeois respectability. Likewise, his gray-green set for Albert’s grocery store was almost cinematic in its period detail. Knight also had great fun with the onstage scene transitions with riotously faux minature models of the town cathedral, guildhall, and estate, and a little toy car that refused to cooperate.

Casting is all important in an ensemble work like this, calling for singers as deft at comedy as vocalism, and Santa Fe could not have fielded a stronger lineup.

Alek Shrader has been creating great buzz in the opera world since his appearance last year in the Met’s documentary, The Audition. In a terrific Santa Fe debut, the handsome Cleveland native showed he is the genuine article.

Playing against type, Shrader was completely believable as the bespectacled nebbish Albert, with his Clark Kent look, and awkward physical movements. Shrader possesses a youthful vibrant tenor and brought superb vocalism to his big moments, as with Albert’s pre-spree drunken soliloquy. In a difficult balancing act, Shrader managed to make Albert amusing, touching and loveable at the same time, while dexterously avoiding caricature. In the final scene when Albert asserts his freedom, you want to cheer when Shrader hurls his silly May King boater into the audience (impressively reaching the last row of the front section).

As his alpha-male friend Sid, Joshua Hopkins made a strong impression, singing well and putting across the butcher assistant’s bravado while still remaining likeable. Likewise, the versatile Kate Lindsey was a sexy match for Hopkins as Nancy, Loxford’s blond sexpot bakery worker.

Leading Loxford’s self-appointed guardians of virtue, Christine Brewer was a hoot as the snooty battleaxe Lady Billows. In her tight purple and pink sensible suits, the substantial Brewer was the epitome of small-minded arrogance whether bullying the locals or observing the proceedings unsmiling in her retro sunglasses (The wonderful costuming was by Knight as well). As the aptly named Florence Pike, Lady Billows’ spying, note-keeping housekeeper, Jill Grove was equally amusing. Judith Christin etched a sharp portrait of lower-class mendacity as Albert’s cringing, greedy mother.

First-year company apprentice Jonathan Michie made an impressive debut as the vicar Mr. Gedge, and Mark Schowalter as Mayor Upfold and Dale Travis as police superintendant Budd were on the same level. Only Celena Shafer as Miss Wordworth crossed the line to broad caricature, with her twitchy, repressed teacher on a TV sitcom level. Erin Sanzero, Jamie-Rose Guarrine and Richard Schmidt livened up the proceedings as the ill-behaving village children.

A few unnecessary vulgarities apart, director Paul Curran provided a textbook example of how to pull off a tricky opera like this, by avoiding broad slapstick, keeping the music to the fore, and treating both the material and the singers and audience with respect. Christopher Alden, take note.

For such a lightweight tale, Britten created one of his most delightful and inventive scores, with several musical rim shots, and surprisingly rambunctious percussion.  Sir Andrew Davis’s brilliant conducting made a terrific case for this imaginative score, the English conductor showed his idiomatic way with Britten, keeping textures light and springy, and pointing the quirky musical jokes and satirical brass and percussion with fine impact.

Albert Herring will be repeated August 21 and 25.

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