Opera scores with British wit
“Virtue is its just reward — from us,” says the aging autocrat Lady Billows in Benjamin Britten’s delightful comic opera, Albert Herring. The Oberlin Conservatory Opera Theater’s production of this work is a reward in itself - both audience and cast enjoyed themselves thoroughly for the full duration of the three-hour-long but tightly-knit performance.
Albert Herring, conducted by Steven Smith and with stage direction by Jonathon Field, opened Wednesday night to an enthusiastic response. A quintessentially British opera, it tells the story of a small English town suffering from what its dignitaries deem “moral decay,” essentially, the sexual liberation of its young people. The dignitaries decide to take a stand against this decay in their selection of the May Queen. Since no young women of the town meet the moral standards of their leader, the domineering Lady Billows, they choose a May King instead. Their choice is Albert Herring, the simple but virtuous greengrocer’s son. Little do they expect that by using him as an example of morality for the town, they will end up liberating him from his repression and releasing him into “sinful” self discovery.
There was little not to like about the Oberlin Opera Theater’s production. Solid ensemble work abounded, both among singers and between singers and orchestra. The orchestra on the whole rendered Britten’s challenging, complicated score with brilliant energy and unprecedented virtuosity. While the cast was a little tense during the first act, things loosened up as the production went on; the humor of the work came through more and more clearly as the show relaxed into itself. Occasional sloppiness was more than forgivable for an opening night performance.
Albert Herring is a chamber opera, which means essentially that every role plays a major part; there were too many exceptional individuals in this production to mention them all. It is, however, impossible not to give credit to senior Marie Masters, junior Megan Radder and sophomore Mara Adler for their exquisitely clownish work in bringing to life the irritating but endearing children, Emmie, Cis and Harry. They formed the comedic backbone of the story, mocking the priggishness of the elders while representing the follies of small town life in general.
The accompanying ensemble was, as appropriate to the genre, a true chamber orchestra consisting of only thirteen players. They captured the biting humor, folk and pastoral qualities of Britten’s score with conspicuous mastery and zealous attention to the singers onstage. The performance gave no hint of the real difficulty of the score - kudos to the ensemble members and Steven Smith for providing a professional-quality accompaniment to the singers in the spotlight and a clear sense of the mood of each scene.
Albert Herring was a thoroughly enjoyable, musically rich and intelligent show. The Oberlin Opera Theater without question produced yet another success with its wholly delightful rendition of a wholly delightful work.