BWW Review: Will Albert Herring ever shed his innocence?
The Union Avenue Opera just gets better and better. As the opener for their twenty-third season they are presenting a simply splendid production of Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring.
As usual, the performance takes place in the nave of the Union Avenue Christian Church-so this is one of the most intimate venues for opera that you're likely to find.
Founder and music director Scott Schoonover has, as always, assembled a cast of superb voices. Among the many Union Avenue productions I've seen I don't recall a one where the quality of voices was more uniformly fine or more ideally chosen to fit perfectly one with another.
Benjamin Britten wrote fourteen operas and Albert Herring is the only comic one of the lot. The tale, taken from a story by Guy de Maupassant, concerns a small Suffolk village, Loxford. It's 1900 and the leaders of the town are meeting to select the girl who will reign as their annual Queen of the May. The wealthy and domineering Lady Billows is the festival's benefactor, and she rigidly insists that the chosen girl must be pure as the driven snow. One after another Loxford maiden is suggested, but Miss Pike, Lady Billows' keen and dedicated housekeeper, keeps up on every juicy morsel of village gossip; she quickly discredits each candidate for some shameful indiscretion.
What's to be done? Is there not a single virgin in Loxford? Well, there is one. But he's male! Innocent young Albert Herring is truly Virtue incarnate - but only because he has grown up under the oppressive thumb of his widowed mother. Nevertheless he is Virtuous. So why not a King of the May?
Scenic designer Kyra Bishop once again makes wonderful, imaginative use of the small stage. The downstage area is used for Lady Billows' home and for the May Festival Luncheon. Upstage we have the Herring green-grocery store. It took me a while to realize that what I was looking at was in fact a huge apple crate. What an inspired device! During the evening there is a little play with apples - a little theft, a chomp or two. It's a lovely motif, as this opera is itself like an apple - tasty, happy, crisp. And, of course, an apple is the very emblem of a fall from innocence.
The incomparable Christine Brewer returns to the Union Avenue stage as Lady Billows (a role she previously performed at Santa Fe Opera). She's a marvel - a gorgeous voice and a commanding stage presence.
Tenor David Walton sings Albert, and he captures all the frustration and shyness of this repressed innocent. Albert is chagrined at being chosen King of the May and we suffer with him as, dressed all in virginAl White and with a crown of orange blossoms atop his straw boater, he fumblingly accepts the monetary prize. (In today's world this would be some $3,000.) Walton has the perfect voice for this role, and he's most impressive in Act 2, scene 2, which is almost completely his soliloquy. Alone in his shop, a little tipsy, he longs for some romance in his life.