Opera Review Print



ECU Opera: Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring

April 5, 2003 - Greenville, NC:


It was too bad that only about a third of East Carolina University School of Music's 240-seat A.J. Fletcher Recital Hall was filled, mostly with friends and relatives, for a fine April 5 matinee production of Benjamin Britten's third opera, Albert Herring (1947). If I had expected a lesser effort than that given by UNCG in Nicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor , that notion was quickly dispelled. Britten and his librettist Eric Crozier had insisted their English Opera Group (for which the opera was composed) be a tight ensemble, and director John Kramar certainly got this out of his thirteen-member cast, as did conductor John O'Brien, from his comparably-sized orchestra. All cast members had their lines well internalized and seemed natural in their stage movements and interactions.

Britten composed Albert Herring as a comic vehicle for his companion, tenor Peter Pears, who had demonstrated a comic flair as Vasek in Smetana's The Bartered Bride and Ferrando in Mozart's Così fan tutte . Despairing of the difficulty of getting a new opera performed, he opted to compose for a smaller force that would be easier to stage and tour. Humphrey Carpenter, writing in Benjamin Britten , distills the plot as "a re-run of Peter Grimes with a different twist. A social misfit is faced with a choice between bourgeois convention and bohemianism, and opts for the latter." The story is simple: unable to find a suitable girl to be crowned "Queen of May" of a small English town, the village elders (dominated by Lady Billows) settle upon crowning the mamma's boy Albert Herring as "May King."

Apparently the set design for the ECU production was very much a group effort that involved many of the cast. The simple sets effectively suggested, in turn, Lady Billows' living room, Mother Herring's grocery, and the site of the village fête. Apt costumes were the product of Jeffrey Phipps and Lisa DeVita of the Department of Theatre and Dance. The lighting was by Michael Crane, who also sang in the production. The sets were built by John W. Kramar. In a non-speaking role, Alexa Tamae Kasuga O'Brien was very effective without over-acting - for once, here was a child who would not have earned the wrath of W.C. Fields. I would bet my genetics course credits that she is the daughter of conductor John O'Brien.

The small orchestra consisted of a string quartet, doublebass, four woodwinds, horn, harp, percussion, and piano. Britten's sophisticated score is by no means easy; the music requires considerable skill, and everyone is in effect a soloist much of the time. Carpenter writes that the village society is "musically characterized by a near-inability to express itself without cliché.... Lady Billows makes her public pronouncements... in a style which is either Handelian or Imperial, ... the vicar and Miss Wordsworth are drawn to 19th century parlor music..., (and) the Mayor and Police Superintendent hold forth in the fashion of, respectively, Italian popular opera and the English brass bands." There are two sets of "free" people: "the village children('s)... music is in the form of traditional singing games and ball-bouncing rhythms, and the (music of the) two lovers, Sid... and Nancy..., (has) lilting, swinging rhythms, ... with erotic overtones."

There was a fine cello solo by Chris Nunally underlining lines about "country virgins," sung by Florence Pike, Lady Billows' housekeeper. The first of three allusions to Wagner's "love potion" music from Tristan und Isolde was a burnished viola solo by Joey O'Donnell. These accompanied Albert's consumption of rum-laced lemonade. Most memorable was the extended duet for bass clarinet (Ann Dervin) and bass flute (Jessica Dixon), towards the end of the Act II Interlude, a passage John Culshaw (in notes to the Decca opera recording) said is "where the flute seems to convey the tip-toe tranquility of the village evening while the clarinet, lurching about somewhat breathlessly and without a definite sense of direction, portrays the drunken Albert as he totters back to the shop." O'Brien's musical preparations were superb. The principals were concertmaster Leslie Connor, second violinist Chris Ellis, doublebassist William Morris, oboist Morgan Zentner, and bassoonist Shrieka Gilliard. During Lady Billows' first speech and elsewhere, there were extended harp solos by Ellen Foster, and percussionist Jonathan Wacker rarely had a chance to rest. His tubular chimes played a significant part in underlining the action with "clock chimes." The horn of John Champney in "its seafaring register... underlined (Lady Billows') patriotic outburst in Act II."

Tenor William Trice's voice was not always evenly supported, but he showed promise as Albert Herring. His acting was subtly developed, and his very gradual inebriation during his coronation party was especially memorable, as was the way in which he showed his growing dissatisfaction with life under his mother's thumb. Taquisha Coley Rice was the imperious Lady Billows; her dramatic soprano lacked only the weight that will come with age. Mezzo-soprano Jill Broadway was ideal as the officious Florence Pike, Lady Billows's housekeeper-cum "secret policeman." Her précis of each village young woman was ideal. Erica Mundy brought a well-supported high soprano voice to the role of the eager schoolteacher, Miss Wordsworth. Michael LaRoche's solid baritone enhanced the role of Mr. Gedge, the vicar. Jack Smith, as Mr. Upfold, the Mayor, has a ringing tenor voice; I would love to hear him perform Britten's Serenade, for tenor, horn and strings. The slow-witted Police Superintendent Budd was brought off in ideal Gilbert and Sullivan fashion by bass Brandon Gaines; his character's one bright and innovative idea is selecting a "May King." Jermaine Smith brought a firm baritone to the role of the amorous Sid. Stephanie Elsayed's evenly-supported mezzo-soprano was outstanding as she brought complexity to the role of Nancy. Was ever the delayed offer of "ripe peaches" more erotic? No children were used; the three village youngsters, Emmie, Cis and Harry, were ably taken by Mary Jean O'Dougherty, Shana Hammett and Meredith Williams, respectively.