Albert Herring, LA Opera

Written by:
Karen Weinstein
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‘Albert Herring’

By Benjamin Britten
Conducted by James Conlon
Directed by Paul Curran
LA Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles
Feb. 25-March 17, 2012

In “Albert Herring” Benjamin Britten wraps serious music in a cloak of comic froth. The time is 1947. Britain is staggering out from under the weight of World War II, and it continues to be muffled by the weight of rigid social classism. Under this cloak Britten gives vent to his feelings of social ostracism and his criticism of British society’s rigid social structure.

‘Tis spring; while a young man’s fancy may turn to love, a moral dominatrix’s thoughts are fixed on finding a sufficiently virginal girl in the provincial township to serve as May Queen. The local grande dame, Lady Billows, is on such a mission. She is deliciously played and sung by Christine Brewer (for the last two performances of this run), who raises tyrannical battleaxe to heights of perfection. Her maid Florence, sung by Ronnita Nicole Miller, is every bit her ally, digging up dirt on every young lass whose name is submitted by the local functionaries for Lady Brewer’s consideration (the transgressions include such scandals as being seen holding hands in the forest). Mezzo Miller just gets better and better with each role. No shrinking violet is she; her lusty voice and saucy attitude are a perfect match for her ladyship. It is a case of Upstairs Downstairs, where Downstairs has learned how to wield power.

“Albert Herring” is a chamber/ensemble opera. Director Paul Curran takes the action to its comic — almost slapstick — extreme. To a person, the singers embrace this interpretation, leading to a very balanced production, which enhances the ensemble qualities yet showcases each to best advantage. Always an LA Opera favorite, Richard Bernstein‘s basso, as the Superintendent of Police, adds heft to the pomposity of any occasion. His solution to the vexing dilemma: if there is not a chaste lass in the surrounding countryside, why not choose a May King instead? All warm to the idea and Albert himself (Alek Shrader), a clerk in his mother’s greengrocery and firmly under her domineering thumb, is the choice. He is described as a “simple man” (with obvious thumps to the head by all who do so).

Britten’s mockery of British manners is obvious, as is his sympathy for the outcast. He was gay, at a time and place where that was totally scandalous. It is commonly believed that he wrote the part of Albert for his lover and that it was a disguised story of his own anguish as an outcast. A woman in the audience was heard to comment ‘how nice it would be to live in such simpler times.’ My guess is that few others in the hall would have agreed with her.

Well, that is definitely the good news. LA Opera’s “Albert Herring” is a near perfect performance. The Dorothy Chandler is much too vast for a chamber opera but the 13 member orchestra under James Conlon‘s baton is full and rich. The complex orchestral score is a delight. Kevin Knight’s fussy, English country set is warm and intimate.

So where is the “but” in this critique? The story is silly. So what? Director Curran takes an irreverent approach and it works, even if it is a bit long on crotch-scratching. Few come to opera for the libretto and the underlying plot. The problem, for me, is on a very personal level. It is inherent in the vocal score. The non-lyrical quality, with odd phrasing and dynamics, are at odds with the comic material. The fact that the lyrics are in English only emphasizes the discrepancy and makes it impossible to ignore. When supertitles are translations from Italian or French, for example, it is easy to assume that it works in the original language and simply focus on the acting to convey the thought.

The bottom line is that for fans of Benjamin Britten, all this is nonsense. The LA Opera has mounted a lovely production. For others, “Albert Herring” may not be a sweet enough cup of tea.

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