Santa Fe Opera presents Benjamin Britten’s “Albert Herring”

Santa Fe Opera presents Benjamin Britten’s “Albert Herring”

Review by David Gregson, Saturday, August 14.
Santa Fe, New Mexico

All photos by KEN HOWARD

Superbly conducted by Sir Andrew Davis and benefitting from Paul Curran’s canny, clever and amusing stage direction, Benjamin Britten’s comedy, “Albert Herring”, is most certainly one of the most successful offerings at Santa Fe Opera this summer. The best of the five opera productions is allegedly the “Madame Butterfly” about which everyone here is talking in the most astonishing, almost unbelievable superlatives. I do not see that show until this evening. Anything short of a revelation will be a disappointment to me after all the praise being lavished. Some are calling it the greatest “Butterfly” ever.

I also had heard the “Albert Herring” was excellent — and it is indeed, although I have seen it many times and have never counted it among my favorite Britten operas. The caricatures of small village types — I am tempted to call them stereotypes — have always struck me as a little cloying and self-consciously cute on the part of their perpetrators, librettist Eric Crozier, and, of course, the composer himself. The work’s eponymous hero has always seemed naive to the point of incredibility. It’s one thing to be a mama’s boy working as a shopkeeper in Loxford, East Suffolk (a fictional locale based on a real one), and quite another to have never tasted alcohol nor at his age to have attempted to try it — nor to be able to recognize it when he drinks it in a glass of lemonade. He also gets drunk rather quickly. I am certain Crozier and Britten know East Suffolk better than I do, yet when I lived in a British village as a young man, parents and children went to the local pubs together and there were drunks on every corner after “closing time”. How can one be shielded from such a reality?

The opera’s plot is not too complicated to explain in a few sentences: Because the unbearably priggish Lady Billows (wonderfully sung and acted by soprano Christine Brewer) cannot find an acceptably virtuous local girl to be Queen of the May in the town’s seasonal festival, she, with considerable prodding from her housekeeper (excellent mezzo-soprano Jill Grove), the schoolteacher Miss Wordsworth (played to fidgety perfection by soprano Celena Shafer), and the town vicar, the mayor and the police superintendent (all excellent and listed below), she chooses the innocent, pure and supposedly simple-minded working ox Albert Herring as King of the May. The aggressively heterosexual couple, Nancy and Sid (in fabulous incarnations created by baritone Joshua Hopkins and mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey) help precipitate Herring’s fall from grace. Sid spikes Albert’s lemonade and before the festival day is over, Albert is on a rampage – and proud of it. Essentially he no longer gives a damn what anybody thinks, even his suffocating mother (hilariously performed by the ever wonderful and ever campy mezzo-soprano Judith Christen, always a joy to see and hear).

As for the role of Albert himself — it will be many years before anyone will come along as good as tenor Alex Shrader. For me, he will always be Albert Herring. Not only does he sing gorgeously, he brings the part a distinct and palpable masculine attractiveness that makes the character all the more interesting. Underneath the nerdy exterior, we know there is a real man waiting to be unleashed. Certainly one did not feel this with Peter Pears!

I tend to see Herring as a metaphor for Britten’s experience with homosexuality in Britain. At one time to be engaging in homosexual acts was actually illegal and there was considerable intolerance in society at large. On some level Herring’s ultimate liberation is symbolic of a coming out of the closet. Many of Britten’s works appear to be encoded with messages about his personal feelings of oppression and marginalization as a gay man, although to assert this is to be guilty of the “biographical fallacy” most critics of my generation usually reject. Surely “Albert Herring” — and “Peter Grimes,” for that matter, can be appreciated without reference to Britten’s private life. Gavin Plumley’s spot-on essay in the SFO program treats these matters with great intelligence and insight. I wish I could reprint the whole thing here.

Finally — while “Albert Herring” is not an opera I love, I greatly admire the skill and inventiveness of the overall composition. Britten explores all sorts of musical forms in the numbers and ensembles, and while the piece is not especially moving (it is a comedy, after all), it is deftly accomplished and witty throughout.

Lady Billows – Christine Brewer —
Miss Wordsworth – Celena Shafer
Florence Pike – Jill Grove Nancy – Kate Lindsey
Mrs. Herring – Judith Christin
Albert Herring – Alek Shrader
Mayor – Mark Schowalter
Sid – Joshua Hopkins
Vicar – Jonathan Michie Budd – Dale Travis
Harry, A Village Child – Richard Schmidt

Conductor – Sir Andrew Davis
Director – Paul Curran
Scenic Designer – Kevin Knight
Costume Designer – Kevin Knight
Lighting Designer – Rick Fisher

Performance dates: July 31; August 4, 13, 18, 21, 25

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