If you can’t find your way out of town to a musical festival this weekend, you could surely do worse than going to Dorchester’s Strand Theater to see a full-length, fully-staged comic opera, performed with flair by the rising young singers of the Boston Opera Collaborative. The FREE, supertitled production runs three more performances, through July 27th.
Be prepared to have an interesting conversation afterwards. Britten’s only comic opera, Albert Herring has plenty of moments of laughter, but Britten is hardly a natural comedian. Much of the interest of the piece comes from puzzling out just what Britten is trying for at any given moment. Whenever a character is getting serious about something moral or ethical, be prepared for something farcical to intervene.
The story is simple and breezy: the selection of a village May Queen is frustrated by the fact that all the females in town have low morals, at least by the measure of Lady Billows, played by Katie Abraham (most of the parts were double cast; this cast will also play July 26), a Margaret Dumont-ish eminence with a savage streak. However, Albert (Jeremy Ayres Fisher), who lives with his mother, runs the grocery and is pleasant and dumb enough, is also “virtuous,” a word synonymous with “virgin” in this town. So they elect him May King, but his friends Sid and Nancy (Scott Ballantine; Beibei Guan) spike his lemonade at his crowning ceremony, and he runs off with his prize money and goes on a bender. The next morning he has not returned and is presumed dead, until he reappears, a somewhat changed man.
Britten knew his way around the theater, so it is fascinating to watch him make odd choices and undercut his scenes: the opera opens with the offstage voice of Lady Billows, while her servant Florence Pike (Sadie Gregg) busies herself around the apartment – never has a piece of comedy begun with so much aimless dusting. Things pick up when the May Queen nominating committee appears: Mayor Upfold (Salvatore Atti), Superintendent Budd (Simon Dyer), Vicar Gedge (Thomas Middleton) and Miss Wordsworth the school teacher (Elizabeth Kinder). I expect very few people go into opera because they like to be laughed at, but Atti and Dyer in particular were able to use expression, accent and emphasis to keep the audience giggling. Atti wrung every comic possibility out of what was really a rather small part: his opening foray was a sudden loud lyric outburst while making his nomination for May Queen, a parody of more traditional tenor writing. He was able to take the single word “No” in the third act and make it a huge laugh line. Dyer had similar success with the congenially doltish Budd. Kinder was notable for her effortless technique, and how she was able to combine it with her acting skills to depict Wordsworth’s combination of enthusiasm and stifling control. The best comedy of the night came from the children’s trio, Emmie, Cis and Harry (Allesandra Cionco, Sarah Shechtman and Malia Jan French). This ensemble has not been double-cast, and perhaps that gave them the time to make their movement, gestures and reactions so satisfying.
But when Albert takes the stage alone, humor is set side by side with the anguished isolation that is familiar from Britten’s other operas. Albert’s lack of experience pains him, sets him apart, making him distant kin to Peter Grimes and Billy Budd. The audience is never given a chance to laugh at Albert’s virginity, it is so clearly a source of suffering for him to have it acknowledged. At these moments Fisher’s body made a vivid picture of discomfort, his torso drawn up vertically into a rectangle.
There is something cutting about how Britten treats almost everyone in this opera – particularly in the third act, when all assume Albert is dead. A lengthy period of grieving ensues that is exaggerated and insincere, and even uncomfortable. The only characters who escape this cynical attitude are Albert himself, and the children. The children don’t share in the grief for Albert. They are plenty excited by the prospect of Albert’s demise, and don’t couch their interest in false platitudes. Albert is allowed to be silly and awkward, but the opera is always on his side. The liberating role of vice in the opera is worthy of note, although drunkenness is handled more forthrightly than sex. There’s a moment of double entendre−a moderately filthy exchange between Sid and Nancy where she desires good piece of English beef and he extols the fine qualities of wet peaches; and they also have a brief offstage duet in the second act that consists of sighing “Ohs”. But when Albert returns he talks about his drinking and belligerence; but the text gets suddenly coy once he is asked if drinking is all he did (he shakes his head “no”).
You get the idea. Albert Herring has modest aims, but the BOC has ensured it always holds your attention. The small orchestra led by Andrew Altenbach did well by Britten: the composer’s palette is extensive for such a small ensemble, and despite the unresonant acoustic of the Strand, the realization of those colors was vivid. Part of the fun of the piece is to hear characteristic Britten gestures in the music that you might have heard in other guises in rather less cheery pieces: Grimes and Billy Budd can be heard, as can some fitful explorations of more exotic sounds from the Miracle Plays; and a turn in the horn that has a strong family resemblance to moments in the Serenade for Tenor and horn.The play was fully, if simply, staged by Katherine Carter. Draped fabric reminiscent of May poles framed the stage, and the simple set of the Herring’s store took on completely different qualities as the light changed upon it. Despite the fact it is not a vocal showpiece, there were occasions of note in the singing: Fischer’s desolate opening aria is quietly devastating; Beibei Guan produces a plummy and rich sound that seems far too big to be contained by her small frame; Abraham’s tone is commanding and penetrating, and she succeeds in being simultaneously fearsome and a bit silly.