|Cory Gross seated and surrounded by Marie Masters Webb, Caroline Tye, Jonathan Harris, Glenn Friedman,|
Rebecca Richardson, Sarah Marvel Bleasdale, Stephanie Feigenbaum, and Luc MacMillan
What a fine time we had last night at Utopia Opera's production of Britten's Albert Herring! Although we generally don't care much for 20th c. operas, which always seem to us to be plays with music, we were tickled pink by the exceptional performances; they came together in a delightful whole, greater than the sum of its parts, thanks to astute stage direction by Gary Slavin and the fine musical performance under the baton of William Remmers.
For information on the background of this opera and the plot, please consult yesterday's review of a different production by Manhattan School of Music Senior Opera Theater. Several people have asked us which production we liked better. The answer is that they were both equally likable; can one compare raspberries and blackberries?
MSM's production was set in the intended period at the turn of the 20th c. in which the characters behaved in a restrained manner, appropriate to that epoch. We smirked at their high-minded morality and stuffy manners. Mr. Slavin set the work in 1959, a time period in which rebellion against society's dictates was just flowering. There is the butcher's assistant Sid (Luke MacMillan) coming on like a louche James Dean and his girlfriend Nancy (Stephanie Feigenbaum) a real "bobbysoxer" with an appealing sympathetic side.
Both productions poked fun at the older generation's stuffiness and "morality" but the acting in this production was over the top and laugh-out-loud hilarious. Marie Masters Webb as Lady Billows had one of the most withering glances we have ever seen. The other characters reactions to her overbearing and disdainful mien were just as laugh-worthy.
Similarly, the stern housekeeper Florence Pike, enacted by Caroline Tye, brought fear with her wherever she went--a true master of intimidation. Vicar Gedge had a touch of hypocrisy--judgmental toward others but, in a clever directorial touch (just one among many), a bit importunate toward the lovely but resistant schoolteacher Miss Wordsworth whose avoidant facial expressions were priceless. We couldn't help thinking of how times have changed in a half century. Today she could tell him off with impunity!
Sarah Marvel Beasdale did her customary fine work as Albert's strict mother, severe in her approach to motherhood and a firm taskmaster. Ethan Fran made a fine Mayor Upfold and Jonathan Harris did well as Superintendent Budd of the Loxford Police. We enjoyed their hysterical reactions when our hero went missing overnight.
Children are children and have always been given to mocking their elders behind their back. The charming Emmie was played by Hannah Madeleine Goodman; Zoe Marie Hart was seen as Cis and Jen Wu as the rascal Harry. All three were convincing and added immeasurably to the fun.
And what about our hero, the eponymous Albert? Cory Gross effectively employed facial and gestural expression to convey his varying moods. He began by appearing beaten down, gazing with envy at Sid and Nancy's fondling. (We noted that much more was made last night of the double entendres in the libretto.) His face and posture suggested wistfulness and a longing for escape.
The glances he made when notified that he was elected King of the May let us know how shy he was, how overruled he was in his objections, and how uncomfortable he was in being in the spotlight. With a little rum in his tum, thanks to the machinations of Sid, his entire expression changed and one couldn't help but egg him on to an exploratory adventure. The triumphant expression he evinced upon his return home the next morning left us feeling as happy as he looked.
The set comprised a couple tables and chairs which served all purposes. When we see opera on a shoestring, we use our imagination to fill in the blanks. In this case, we recalled the elegant settings from last night at MSM. Similarly, the costumes were also improvised by Eric Lamp and Angel Betancourt, but we cared not a whit. It was the dramatic and musical values that carried the evening.
We don't have much to say about the music that we didn't say last night. Still, there was an advantage in having the chamber orchestra front and center (well, actually, front and stage left, as it usually is) because we had an extra measure of pleasure glancing at the musicians when we heard that divine alto flute/bassoon duet, as well as the heraldic horn calls.
We noticed several examples of fugal writing which Maestro Remmers brought to the forefront and the excellent threnody when the townspeople believe Albert to have died. Such tragic writing in the midst of a comedy had an extra impact.
The music is not our favorite due to the fact that we are unable to truly appreciate a singer's vocal skills without a nice 19th c. melody. That being said, we did like the way Britten's instrumental writing emphasized the personality of each character. Would the work have succeeded as a play without music? Probably. With such excellent direction and acting we would have enjoyed the comedy. But we love music and have no complaints.
We do have one observation and that is about the staging. The small but comfortable Lang Recital Hall at Hunter College has excellent sightlines and good placement for the projection of titles. That was the sole edge the production had over the one at MSM. No matter how well the words are enunciated, we always miss some words at the higher end of the register and are grateful for the opportunity to fill in the gaps.
If you were lucky enough to have enjoyed what we consider Utopia Opera's finest production to date, we welcome your comments. If you missed it, we are very very sorry. There will be one more production June 7-9 of Laura Kaminsky's Some Light Emerges, a New York premiere. Mark your calendars.
Before closing we would like to report our delight that Utopia Opera is moving forward into territory more professional. We always have believed that artists should be paid and paid they will be. This company has grown significantly in its eight years and has, miraculously, covered its expenses by ticket sales. The new growth will require new funding. Just sayin'!
(c) meche kroop