Hall Auditorium, Oberlin
|Joshua Blue, center, as an unhappy King of the May.|
When Benjamin Britten’s comic opera Albert Herring premiered at Glyndebourne in 1947, the director of the festival reportedly warned the audience, “This isn’t our kind of thing.” The undercurrent of homosexuality in a man being chosen as Queen of the May was too strong, especially with Britten’s partner, tenor Peter Pears, singing the title role.
Fortunately that’s passé now, leaving a brilliant musical work ripe for straight (no pun intended) comic treatment – with satirical swipes directed at the supporting cast, not Albert. Director Jonathon Field ran with that premise in a whipcrack production last week, turning in a professional-caliber performance with Oberlin Conservatory students.
Field approached the opera in the spirit of screwball comedy, the rapid-fire, histrionic style of filmmaking that was popular in Hollywood in the 1930s and ’40s. Characters marched, preened, bantered and cajoled in clockwork precision, starting with the group of British villagers that convene at the home of Lady Billows to decide who will be Queen of the May. Stereotypically stiff and proper, they moved like interlocking parts of a well-oiled machine, establishing caricatures (priggish schoolmarm, huffy police superintendent) with a few deft lines and gestures before flitting into places around a dining table to make unctuous pitches for their candidates.
That set up an amusingly pompous entrance by Lady Billows, played on Friday night by Amber Monroe, whose privileged mien and florid indignation delivered in Wagnerian-sized vocals provided amusing reaction shots throughout the entire evening. The snappy put-downs of her maid, sung by Micaëla Aldridge, to each of the proposed names set a brisk tempo and arch tone of comic anticipation.
The pace slowed with the title character’s appearance in the second half of the first act, and Joshua Blue’s one-dimensional portrayal of a depressed mama’s boy didn’t help. Daveed Buzaglo’s overly cloying Sid was more distracting than amusing, but Hannah Hagerty as his girlfriend Nancy brought back some sparkle, particularly in their love duet. And when the committee flooded in for a rousing production number announcing Albert as King of the May, the cascade of reactions – Albert aghast, his mother thrilled, Lady Billows dangling the prize purse – set an enticing mixture of farce, satire and whimsy.
Britten’s witty score comes to the fore in the second act, and Field took full advantage of comic set pieces like Miss Wordsworth (Audrey Ballaro-Hagadorn) rehearsing her mischievous choral trio. Even more impressive was the way he had his singers play to the quirks in the music – flashes of color in the woodwinds, sharp cracks of percussion – that add dimension to the characters’ personalities. The score is also notable for its many references, to which Field added a few of his own onstage. Lady Billows had a Scarlett O’Hara moment on the staircase of her home, and it took an invocation of da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” to induce Albert to get up and speak at the banquet celebrating his crowning.
Albert’s disappearance in the third act gave Hagerty a chance to shine in hand-wringing arias, and the full ensemble an opportunity to indulge in some lusty, madcap recriminations after he reappeared. The singing was uniformly strong, without a weak voice in the cast. After Albert downed a spiked drink in the second act and his character opened up, Blue blossomed into a rich, full tenor who dominated the stage by the final curtain. Monroe never failed to get a reaction to her outsized singing and acting, and the committee members crafted amusing character studies.
Much of the credit for the production’s success has to be shared with conductor Christopher Larkin, whose credits include a stint as music director of the New York City Opera touring company. Even for a small orchestra (13 pieces), the sound was remarkably transparent, clear and disciplined without losing the spontaneity that gives Albert Herring its bright spirit and momentum. Violinist Yuri Popowycz deserves special mention for a virtuoso invocation of whistling. And the orchestra’s intermezzos merited an extra round of applause.
King of the May? By the final curtain Friday night, it seemed exactly like our kind of thing.
For more on Jonathon Field: http://new.oberlin.edu/conservatory/departments/opera-theater/faculty_detail.dot?id=20743
For more on Oberlin Opera Theater: http://new.oberlin.edu/conservatory/departments/opera-theater/
Photos by John Seyfried