Albert Herring is a comic chamber opera, with an orchestra of just 13, by British composer Benjamin Britten. Libretto is by Eric Crozier, and the source material is a short story by Guy de Maupassant, "Le rosier de Madame Husson" (Mme. Husson's Rosebush). This production was originally mounted at the Santa Fe Opera. Set in rural England just after World War II, the story is about the village of Loxford's crusade to prop up moral virtues by holding a May festival to celebrate one of the town's righteous virgins. Only they can't find one. Since there are no choices for Queen of the May that will not bring appalling embarrassment, they choose feckless Albert Herring (tenor Alek Shrader), the clerk at the local greengrocer, to be King. In a delightfully simple (especially for opera) and genuinely silly plot, Albert's friends secretly spike his lemonade with rum at the award picnic, he gets falling-down drunk, he mysteriously disappears, and he reappears the next morning in a disheveled but ecstatic state, having had a private orgy with two of the local girls during the night.
Georja: Amazingly, again, LA Opera manages to pull off comedy to a tee. Trained opera singers, it turns out, can create hilarious characters to compete with the brightest farcical actors with the most biting satire and slapstick. And the music does serve to highlight the quick wit. The wonderful sets were especially designed to bring the outdoor production inside, with a 3-D countryside effect.
Gerald: Last season, LA Opera staged another of Britten's works, The Turn of the Screw. That one is a macabre ghost thriller, adapted from a Henry James short story set in New England. It was no surprise, then, to many of the audience that Britten didn't write melodies. The music is highly energetic, even frenetic, and a great vehicle for all the clowning and silliness. But it is also impressionistic and, at times, downright harsh. Go for the exhilaration and the madcap antics, but don't expect a showstopper song you'll be humming on the way out.
Georja: Yes, the hypocritical moralistic guard dogs, rant and critique society, and they come across a bit shrill, especially in the early scenes. Florence the maid, played brilliantly by Ronnita Nicole Miller although she shares in their rancor, when left to her own devices is a cigarette smoking, magazine reading and lazy servant. Although she is odd man out in this pristine British hierarchy, she saunters in and out of the scenes as though she lives onstage. You can't help but think of today’s right-wing factions who scream and holler about virtue and those who follow them – both groups often come across in much the same comic fashion. The only caveat is that today they seem to be gaining in political power and are thus able to subject the rest of us to their clamoring.
Gerald: Albert Herring premiered at Glyndebourne in 1947, and Britten and his colleagues used it as the showcase piece to launch a new, progressive opera company, The English Opera Group. We can imagine that the Glyndebourne blue-hair crowd, expecting perhaps something more like rousing, giddy-up Rossini, might not find Britten's scoring their precise cup of tea.
Georja: Act Two, Scene II is the only part where I can say the music was lovely on its own. The whole gang laments about what they assume is the death of young Albert, and it is the only part where deeper emotion comes through. And yet the audience knows they are in for a great ironic twist, wonderfully fulfilled when dear Albert climbs up through the trap door in the floor boards.
Gerald: It's interesting to think about how the plot reflects what was going on in England at the time. The great, bloody war had just ended in 1945, after the country, and particularly London, had withstood widespread destruction from German drone rockets. Morals during the war were understandably relaxed, as eligible men were scarce and no one knew whether there would be a tomorrow. So after the truce, it was all about rebuilding community, with returning vets looking to settle down, get new jobs, and build families. There must have been a wave of conservatism, as personified in this piece by the aristo frump Lady Billows, who no doubt hopes to "clean up" the town so that respectable folks would want to call it home and property values, including hers, would rise.
Georja: All the singing and orchestration was of the same top-notch A quality that we are spoiled by in LA Opera all year long. Conductor James Conlon is always on top of his form. Director Paul Curran milks the material fully, and the performers could not be better. I especially enjoyed the hijinks of breezy baritone Liam Bonner as Albert’s only true pal Sid. This is not traditional opera by any means, and although the music definitely highlighted the action, to me it feels much more of a theatrical than operatic experience. Like other good theater pieces, its messages resonate in today’s world.
Photos by Robert Millard for LA Opera
Albert Herring by Benjamin Britten
Sat Feb 25, 2012 7:30pm
Sat Mar 3 7:30pm
Thur Mar 8 7:30pm
Sun Mar 11 2pm
Wed Mar 14 7:30pm
Sat Mar 17 2pm