|Sung Shin, Gabriella Chea, Joseph Tancredi, Riley Bragg, Adam Goldstein, Erin Wagner, Edward Lim, Yvette Keong,|
Christina Parsons, and Sam Krivda
By a strange quirk of scheduling, we found ourself at two different productions of Britten's Albert Herring two nights in a row. We could never consider ourself a big fan of Britten but we recalled a delightful production of the comedy seen in 2010 at the Santa Fe Opera and decided to explore the opera further.
The work premiered in 1947 at Glyndebourne, using the same chamber orchestra used for Britten's 1946 tragedy The Rape of Lucretia. The work is perfect for presentation by a conservatory, offering juicy roles for 13 singers and not requiring massive orchestral forces.
For anyone who does not know the story, it is about a bumbling but virtuous (inhibited) youth who rebels against his mother's domination with the subversive help of a pair of friends. Because the selection committee is unable to find a sufficiently virtuous young woman to serve as Queen of the May, Albert is chosen to be King. His friends surreptitiously get him drunk and he goes out on a bender, driving his entire village into a state of anxiety and then mourning when they believe him to be dead. When he turns up alive and disheveled their grief turns to anger. But he has cut the apron strings!
At Manhattan School of Music Friday night, the MSM Senior Opera Theater brought the work to comic life with Dona D. Vaughn's detailed direction, offering many sly comic touches which, along with Britten's writing, gave each character his/her own particular character. Maestro Jorge Parodi's crisp conducting brought out the nuances of the score, particularly in the fugal sextet which closed the first scene. Act II brought a gorgeous duet in which an alto flute (Michelle Pokley) joined harmonics with a bassoon (Morgan Davison). We also enjoyed Sonia Bize's harp.
The singers were uniformly sensational and one could scarcely believe that they are all undergraduates! In the title role we had the sweet-voiced tenor Joseph Tancredi whose growth we have been watching for a couple of years. As agile of acting as he is of singing, we enjoyed watching his resentment grow until he liberated himself and got out from under his mother's thumb. His discomfort about being manipulated into his role as King of the May was a joy to observe.
As his naughty friends, Sam Krivda made a superb Sid, a young man with a carefree and wild side; as his sweetheart Nancy, Christina Parsons was especially likable when she sang of her remorse over tricking Albert with spiked lemonade.
The imperious and judgmental Lady Billows was given a fine realization by Riley Bragg; Gabriella Chea, as her equally judgmental housekeeper Florence Pike, sang well and also had the best and plummiest accent in the cast.
The selection committee comprised Vicar Gedge, whose arias were beautifully realized by Sung Shin; schoolteacher Miss Wordsworth, gorgeously sung and enacted by Yvette Keong; Mayor Upfold, finely etched by Adam Goldstein; and Superintendent Budd, sung by Edward Lim, whose rich bass could only have been tutored by James Morris. Their scene in Lady Billows' drawing room was filled with Britten's sendup of self importance.
Erin Wagner cut a fine figure as Albert's strict and controlling mother. Three children of the town were believably portrayed by Melissa Lubars, Hyejin Yoon, and Yunchan Zhou. They comprised a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the action. The scene in which Miss Wordsworth tries to get them to sing for the May Festival was absolutely adorable.
Maureen Freedman's sets and costumes were just about perfect. In the opening scene, everyone was in grey monotones. In the Festival scene, ridiculous flowered hats added to the fun. The embarrassed Albert was made to wear a white suit with a crown of blossoms. Poor Albert!
The effective set for Mrs. Herring's greengrocer shop included a pot bellied stove, burlap sacks of potatoes and turnips, trays of herbs, bins of produce, and flowers. It was all deliciously realistic.
We have but minor quibbles. One is that the stage was elevated about three feet off the ground with seating on three sides, causing the audience to be always looking up and also obscuring the titles. It might have been better to have raised the audience!
The presence of titles was rendered almost unnecessary by the clarity of enunciation, thanks to Kathryn LaBouff. Perhaps this is too much to expect of undergraduates but we would have liked to hear different accents from the working class than we heard from the professional class. That's just how it is in England!
In spite of the charm of the "book" we found Eric Crozier's libretto to be somewhat leaden. Setting English is so challenging. W.S. Gilbert was long dead by then and Sondheim not yet born. It was obvious that Crozier could at times rhyme and scan but those moments were few and far between. As is usual in 20th c. opera, the interesting music is in the orchestra with not much melody going on in the vocal lines. It is to the credit of these young singers that their phrasing and tonal quality made music. We could scarcely believe that they are Seniors (and one Junior). What a wealth of talent!