Quick — imagine an opera, any opera, in your head. I’ll wait. . . . I’m guessing that you probably came up with large-bodied singers standing in one place belting out big arias in a foreign language (probably Italian, German, or French) over the strains of a big orchestra; lots of murder, suicide, rape, and other unpleasantries, with at least one character taking a full act or two to actually go through the dying process; random deities, the supernatural, and a whole host of unrealistic events are typical; and almost always, the more you know before you step foot in the opera house, the more you’ll enjoy and the better off you are (ugh, homework). It is big and can be intimidating. Sound familiar?
Albert Herring is NOT that kind of opera. Benjamin Britten’s lone comedy is a human-scaled, English-language bit of theatre which, in Los Angeles Opera’s production that opens tonight, proves to be a thoroughly approachable experience. There is very much to admire and enjoy, regardless of whether one is an operatic veteran or novice.
Most of all, it’s funny. Truly funny, with that special brand of wry humor the British seem to possess in droves. In this case, the shy, unassuming Albert is unexpectedly chosen as May Day Festival king when it is decided that the girls of the town are a little too, um, worldly (nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more). “Want virgins, not trollops!” declares Loxford grande dame, Lady Billows (don’t we all). Then someone decides to spike King Albert’s May Day punch, he sows his proverbial wild oats, and the rest is comic history.
Once again, I was asked to occupy one of the LA Opera’s “tweet seats” at their final dress rehearsal, and as such, was highly encouraged to share my thoughts on the whole experience. I’ll post about the night’s tweet seat particulars later, but for now, a review of the performance:
Since this was not an official performance, the usual caveats apply to this review, and I pass along the caution given to all of us, “Remember that this is a dress rehearsal. There may be cast substitutions, singers holding back and saving their voices for opening night, the production may stop while the director/technicians fix or change something, lighting may be different, etc.…” The announcement was largely unnecessary. If it hadn’t been made, the evening would have seemed like a regular performance. And what a performance it was.
The uniformly excellent cast may lack the star-power that Placido Domingo brings to LA Opera’s Simon Boccanegra, but it didn’t matter. Each singer brought a solid sense of characterization and personality to his/her respective role, while still being extremely well balanced in ensemble, both vocally and dramatically. Their collective comic timing was spot on. In fact, I don’t remember any other opera I’ve seen where the entire cast could both sing AND act so well.
Lots of credit must be given to Paul Curran (in his LA Opera directorial debut) for crafting some great scenes; he kept the action on stage fluid without ever allowing it to devolve into a disorganized jumble, maintaining visual interest in what could otherwise be some static parlor scenes. The physical humor was never slapstick; one could forgive a bit of potty humor here or a scene-change regurgitation there. Credit also the production, borrowed from Santa Fe Opera with scenic and costume design by Kevin Knight, which was full of attention to detail that has sadly become increasingly rare in opera these days.
Alek Shrader was a standout in the title role, convincingly making the transition from sheepishly innocent boy to a wiser and more worldly man. He was remarkable throughout all of Albert’s solo moments in the second scene of Act 2, sounding particularly radiant throughout the hurdles posed by “Albert the Good,” while giving just the right amount of anguish to “Heaven helps those who help themselves.” Liam Bonner played Sid as a lighthearted and mischievous cad, his rich baritone shining throughout the evening. Daniela Mack was a flirty and attractive Nancy, both visually and vocally. There was excellent chemistry between the three, no doubt aided by the fact that Mr. Shrader and Ms. Mack are husband and wife.
The rest of the ensemble gelled equally well. Janis Kelly gave a regal uptightness to Lady Billows, allowing her to stand out during her solo moments. Ronnita Nicole Miller was a hilarious scene-stealer as the housekeeper, Florence Pike. LA Opera veteran Richard Bernstein (Superintendent Budd) joined Stacey Tappan (Miss Wordsworth), Jonathan Michie (Vicar), and Robert McPherson (Mayor) as the committee members, all wonderful in voice and stage comedy.
James Conlon led the small chamber orchestra with his usual panache. Long may he reign at Los Angeles Opera.
Tweet Seaters: @KatherineTalley, @Kristall_LA, @jozjozjoz, @laurislist, @lisasonrisa, @MrCKDH, and @MrsAgnello
Joining in from backstage: @alekshrader, @dcecima, @janiskelly1, @liambonner,and @staceytappan
Los Angeles Opera: Feb 25 – March 17, 2012 (six performances); Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
by Benjamin Britten
libretto by Eric Crozier, based on Le Rosier de Madame Husson by Guy de Maupassant
|Albert Herring||Alek Shrader*|
|Lady Billows (Feb 25 – Mar 11)||Janis Kelly*|
|Lady Billows (Mar 14 – 17)||Christine Brewer*|
|Florence Pike||Ronnita Nicole Miller++|
|Miss Wordsworth||Stacey Tappan|
|Mr. Gedge, the Vicar||Jonathan Michie*|
|Mr. Upfold, the Mayor||Robert McPherson*|
|Superintendent Budd||Richard Bernstein|
|Mrs. Herring||Jane Bunnell*|
|Scenic and Costume Designer||Kevin Knight*|
|Lighting Designer||Rick Fisher*|
|Assoc. Conductor||Grant Gershon|
|* LA Opera debut artist
+ Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program member
++ Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program alumnus
Photo credits: Robert Millard for LA Opera