Albert Herring, Berkeley

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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The cast of Castleton Festival Opera’s “Albert Herring,” with Brian Porter (kneeling, in hat)
Photo by F&E Schmidt

The Britten Project / ‘Albert Herring’

Castleton Festival Opera
Conducted by Lorin Maazel
Presented by Cal Performances
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
March 24-27, 2011
(See short video below.)

Poor Albert. Not only is he a mama’s boy, teased by the village children and thought to be a little bit simple, but he’s never had a drink and never kissed a girl. Benjamin Britten’s comic opera “Albert Herring,” presented in tandem with the composer’s far more serious “The Rape of Lucretia,” by the Castleton Festival Opera, a post-retirement project of the famed conductor Lorin Maazel and his wife, the actress Dietlinde Turban, shows what can happen when a good boy goes wrong. It also shows what happens when a good opera goes wrong. “Herring” is filled with delightful music and rhythms ranging from jazz to waltzes, dirges to bird song and clock chimes, perhaps its finest passages, like those in the composer’s “Peter Grimes,” being in the interludes between scenes. It can be a lot of fun. But a recent performance with Maazel himself leading the Berkeley Symphony was heavy. Instead of skipping the light fantastic it just lay there, rather like—a dead herring.

Not that there wasn’t a lot of talent in evidence. The work featured soprano Nancy Gustafson, veteran of opera houses from here to Vienna and back again, as the haughty Lady Billows, a Victorian doyenne who has taken it upon herself to manage the manners and morals of her little town. When the town council, a bunch of fully realized characters—each properly officious in his or her own way—fails to come up with a suitably virginal May Queen for the traditional spring celebration, the backward greengrocer Albert is nominated May King by default. Too shy to accept on his own, the young man, elegantly sung by 30-year-old tenor Brian Porter, is shoved into the job by his pushy mother (Rachel Calloway) for the sake of the 25 gold-piece award. Who would have guessed that Albert’s friends, the mischievous lovers Sid (Adrian Kramer) and Nancy (Tammy Coll) would spike his lemonade with rum, leading him to sow some wild oats in a tipsy night on the town, squandering some of his hard-earned sovereigns and his lily-white reputation in the process?

Everybody sang and played very well, but it never really took off. Even three adorable members of the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir failed to lift it from the pedestrian. Two intermissions, which made the evening unnecessarily lengthy, and Nicholas Vaughan’s peculiar set design—a sloping greensward topped by tiny houses with lights that flash on and off, rather in the manner of Robert Lepage but not as good—didn’t help. A long slog, when you were expecting a romp, can be quite a disappointment.

The Castleton Festival, housed on the site of a former henhouse on the 500-plus-acre Maazel estate in Virginia, is a wonderful idea. It hosts some 200 young artists every summer, presenting chamber operas in a chamber space, along with recitals and dance. And the Maazel name, with its attendant clout, doesn’t hurt. For example, Gustafson, a famed singer in her own right, is general manager of the project. It is greatly to former New York Philharmonic Music Director Maazel’s credit that, in his 80s, he has taken on this project. I did not see it but I understand that “Lucretia” was splendid. Alas, “Albert Herring” was another kettle of fish.

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