Union Avenue Opera

Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring

Union Avenue at Delmar

July 7, 8, 14, 15

Reviewed by Joan Leyden

Try to imagine a charming, funny, beautifully realized production of what has been called “the greatest comic opera of the century” (Sviatoslav Richter), and you will have some idea of the enjoyment awaiting you at the Union Avenue Opera.

First the story:  The autocratic, moralizing Lady Billows has summoned the local authorities in her village to choose a May Queen, but no young woman can be found virtuous enough to represent purity. Desperate for a substitute, the town elders and Lady B finally decide to crown a King of the May instead, and settle on the poor, naïve Albert Herring. This cautious young greengrocer, painfully timid from years of living under his mother’s thumb, is judged pure enough, and although unwilling to accept this honor, is coerced by said mother to do so.

He is crowned, attired in white, his summer hat bedecked with spring flowers. However, with a little help from his well-meaning friends, Albert is given some spiked lemonade at the ceremony. Happily inebriated, he kicks over the traces and sets out for an evening of drunken debauchery, with the 25-pounds of prize money in his pocket. The town is in a subsequent uproar over his disappearance.

Morning arrives and the distracted search party assembles to renounce, and then mourn Albert, when our hero, no longer such an innocent, reappears, willing to be somewhat penitent, and ready to claim his independence from his mother and to claim his new place in the village.

This delightful three-act chamber opera offers many pleasures: a delightfully witty score by Benjamin Britten; the accomplished conducting of artistic director Scott Schoonover; and the inspired direction of Tin Ocel. A very special addition to this production is the star-turn by the distinguished Christine Brewer, whose mellow soprano is matched by a portrayal of Lady Billows which has the comic authority, subtlety and exuberant dimensions reminiscent of Lady Bracknell. David Walton, a versatile lyric tenor, is a delightful Albert, embarrassed and yearning for the life he suspects he’s missing; Mark Freiman brings a homey charm to the role of Budd, the policeman; and the mezzo-soprano, Janara Kellerman, is vocally and comically vivid as Albert’s mother. The singing and acting of the supporting cast is excellent, as is the performance of the orchestra.

{An aside: there are three powerful, controlling women in this coming-of-age story – all of whom must surrender in some way to Albert’s successful maturation. Britten’s revenge? If so, a very good-natured one.}

And then there are the production values: a triple-setting (successively revealed) by Kyra Bishop that has the charm of a first-rate collage; the witty costumes designed by Teresa Doggett; and David Levitt’s subtly enhancing lighting.

If you are not lucky enough to see Albert Herring, please note that the hauntingly lovely Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, Carousel, will be running at the Union Avenue Opera July 28 and 29 and August 4 and 5.

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