Albert Herring, written by Benjamin Britten (1913-76) in 1946-47, is a perky, witty opera in three acts. The centennial anniversary of the composer's birth explains the UNCG Opera Theatre production of the work in Aycock Auditorium this season. The comic opera, with a clever libretto by Eric Crozier, is set in a small (conjectural) market town of Loxford in Suffolk, 1900.
The plot of the opera revolves around a self-righteous committee searching for a suitable girl from the area to be May Queen. It seems all of the candidates are soiled in some way, so the committee accepts a boy who has a spotless reputation – Albert Herring to be May King. After all, why should virtue be a birthright pertaining only to females?
Jonathan Ray strongly sang the title role, and although the transformation of his character from "mommy's boy" to "man of the world" is a bit abrupt, the shenanigans surrounding the change were well-staged. Ray's resonant tenor voice easily went from the shy boy who was afraid of girls to the man who has experienced a life of excess (in one night) and now is master of his mother's house.
The most self-righteous of the puritanical committee is the highfalutin Lady Billows, sung by soprano Bridget Moriarty. This is a high tessitura role, and Moriarty had all the notes with good diction. And her nose was often appropriately stuck up in the air, or so it seemed.
Speaking of high tessitura, the vocal line of the schoolteacher Miss Wordsworth, sung by Kari Ringgenberg, seemed perfectly fitting for the spinster, although occasionally the timbre was a bit shrill.
Other committee members include the vicar Mr. Gedge, (Derek Gracey, baritone), the police superintendent Budd (humorously sung by bass Richard Hodges) and the mayor Mr. Upfold (tenor Nicholas del Prince). These three provided some humor in the first act in their deference to Lady Billows, standing every time she stood, even though she continually motioned them to sit.
Sarah Zielinsky sang the role Florence Pike, Lady Billows' housekeeper, a role that demands middle and low range, which the mezzo negotiated quite well. Incidentally, in this production the opening scene begins with a tryst between police superintendent Budd and the housekeeper, thereby throwing suspicion on the "righteousness" of the entire committee.
Sid, winningly sung by baritone Jacob Kato, and Nancy Walters, also persuasively sung by mezzo Lydia Pion, provided a pair of young lovers. These two are responsible for spiking Albert's drink at the picnic, which he drinks with gusto (accompanied by a quote from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde – this is only one of many borrowings from other composers), thereby initiating his night of debauchery.
Mezzo-soprano Gretchen Krupp solidly presented Albert's mother, Mrs. Herring. Other members of the cast included three adorable village children Emmie (Adrienne Leggett), Cis (Georgia Smith), and Harry (Donovan Elliot). The trio of "young" voices added a youthful dimension that provided a good foil to the staid, sanctimonious committee of adults.
The music is great fun. Britten uses the chamber orchestra of 13 to explore a variety of textures to great effect: flute coupled with double bass adds humor; fugato passages invoke a "serious" message. Special effects (string and timpani glissandos, for example) add significant color.
The scant Thursday night crowd chuckled frequently at the ingenious libretto, which was often in rhyme; the supertitles helped the audience catch the inventive text. Stage direction, provided by Donald Hartmann, supported the action at hand in a no-nonsense manner with some brilliant touches. The scenes (also designed by Hartmann) were simple and effective.
David Holley, producer, music director, and conductor, held the team of crack musicians with a tight rein, bringing forth energetic and rhythmically vital music throughout; occasionally, however, the orchestra was a bit too loud for the singers. One also wonders about the long music interludes between the scenes, lengthy filler with no real purpose.
Albert Herring will be repeated Friday evening, November 15, and Sunday afternoon, November 17. For details, see the sidebar.