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LA Opera heads to an English province with 'Albert Herring' in the driver's seat

By Donna Perlmutter
Published: Tuesday, February 28, 2012, at 05:35PM
Robert Millard courtesy of LA Opera

A scene from LA Opera's "Albert Herring."

No, Benjamin Britten’s “Albert Herring” does not fall into that widely recognized category of popular opera – the “Toscas,” the “Rigolettos,” the “Bohèmes.” But here’s a tip: this post-Romantic, lesser-known work offers great impact just the same.

At point is LA Opera’s not-to-be-missed current show, “Albert Herring.” And, yes, it’s a wonderfully wry little chamber piece that dwells in the existential concerns of a modern day closer to our own than that of kings and crowns and love-to-the-death.

So what does that mean? Well, no grand flourishes, for starters, no march to the gallows, no frail heroines dying of consumption. But most importantly, it means that the British composer’s music emanating from the pit -- just 13 instrumentalists in all -- is brilliant music that cleverly and feelingly tells the story. It's music that is the connective tissue for all competing emotions, music that catches you in its grip.

And while I’m not minimizing the cast or production virtues – all sterling – here is a moment when James Conlon, presiding over his marvelous musicians, must take due credit. Here was each instrument playing a role -- be it as spikey upstart, rhythmic motor or melancholy dreamer -- to brilliant effect.

So, too, did this Paul Curran production from Santa Fe abound in the work’s sensibility of a Suffolk province, updated to 1947, the year of the world premiere. Folks here were invested in a ridiculously petty false morality, all the easier for Britten and librettist Eric Crozier to upend in their sly, affectionate parody.

Centerpiece of community affairs is the election of a May Queen. But, oh, dear, the township cannot find a virtuous-enough candidate, so Albert Herring, the virginal grocer tied to his Mum’s apron strings, is chosen to substitute as May King. Prior to this elevated status, we see neighbors’ kids sneaking into to his country store to pinch apples and a lusty couple lurking there torment him. By any standard, he represents the outsider.

This stuff, though, is mere psycho-social context for the titular hero. At its deepest level, the work probes his coming out – as gay? as hetero? – his throwing off of the dependent, good-boy child and flexing his manly muscles.

Director Curran enlarges this point, with Kevin Knight’s tightly realistic, dollhouse-sized sets, by moving the action from a more repressive 1900 English society to post WW 2. In other words, there’s a great deal more acting-out here, which makes for dramatic contrast. And on his epiphanous night of drunken revelry Albert is carried off by two party girls, rather than allowing his absence to be seen in a mysterious, unexplained way.

In that lead role, Alek Shrader struck just the right tone as a bumbling innocent awakened to the poignance of yearning and sang in a lyrically, open-throated manner.

Those surrounding him, pillars of the community all, made striking figures: Ronnita Nicole Miller, she of the velvety mezzo as housekeeper Florence Pike (though, watch out for the company’s steady typecasting of her in maid roles, which is disconcertingly remindful of this year’s hit movie, “The Help”!); Jonathan Michie as an intimidatable vicar, Robert McPherson as a vibrant tenor of a mayor, Stacey Tappan, as an aptly overdrawn teacher and Richard Bernstein as a terrifically bluff and deep-voiced constable. Altogether wonderful ensemble singing.

Only Janis Kelly seemed somewhat miscast as the dowager Lady Billows, her voice lacking the dramatic power of Christine Brewer, who will be free to sing the last two performances.

Liam Bonner, a louche, lean and limber Sid, together with Daniela Mack, a sensual, sometimes tender Nancy, carry off their chicanery convincingly. Jane Bunnell portrayed Albert’s Mum as a universally understood figure.

"Albert Herring" runs until Mar. 17

Donna Perlmutter is an award-winning critic, journalist and author. Formerly the chief music/dance critic for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, she contributes to the Los Angeles Times and other publications.

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