Benjamin Britten wrote the roles in his operas for specific singers with whom he loved to work, foremost among them the tenor Peter Pears, who was in the original cast of Albert Herring, one of several Britten’s chamber operas that were produced by the English Opera Group in its early days. I bet Mr. Britten would have loved working with the cast of the Opera d’Arte production of his one comic opera.
Its feather-light plot concerns the May Day celebrations about to be held in Loxford, a Sussex backwater. A search for a virgo intacta to be the May Day Queen proves futile when all the village girls are found wanting in the…ahem…virginal department. Enter celibate, Mama’s boy, Albert Herring, and a motion is put forth to make him the May Day King. What ensues over the next couple of acts is a comic coming of age story. No spoiler to tell you that Albert disappears with his twenty-five quid prize only to return after a night of drunken revelry to finally assert his budding manhood and his raging hormones much to the consternation of the uptight townsfolk.
The music of this opera is not a walk in the village park. Lots of tricky passages abound, quotes of everybody from Bach to Wagner fly by, and the orchestration for a dozen instruments – one to a part – is inventive and requires top-notch musicians to make it work. Jesse Leong proved his mettle as a conductor, leading the excellent opening night cast and the terrific orchestra with a firm hand and a very good instinct for accompanying singers.
Kenneth Shaw staged the work with finesse and a light touch that did not shy away from the underlying theme of this opera: the loneliness of those who are different from the pack, as personified by the painfully shy, secretly randy and tongue-tied Albert, sung here by the very fine tenor, Gregory Miller.
In the cast of over a dozen promising young singers, Maria Miller in the role of battle-ax Lady Billows commanded the stage with her comical timing and substantial soprano, Nancy and Sid were respectively sung and acted to perfection by mezzo-soprano, Brianna Bragg and baritone, Haydn Smith, and Elena Villalon was a charming Miss Wordsworth, with a high soprano voice that rode the top line in the ensembles with great ease.
The flexible set by Olivia Leigh, the costumes loaned to this production by Costume Gallery and the lighting by Marissa Childress, gave this Albert Herring an authentic English, turn-of-the-century look.
With Albert Herring, Kenneth Shaw’s Opera d’Arte again proves itself an indispensable member of the Cincinnati opera scene. There are two more performances, one on Saturday February 4 at 8 pm and one on Sunday 5, at 2 pm. They are sold out, BUT chances are that some folks who reserved the free tickets won’t show up. If you cannot get in, you might be able to catch something else at the same time at CCM, the Music Conservatory that never sleeps.
Rafael de Acha