Story: May Day 1900 is fast approaching, and the town leaders of Loxford in East Suffolk, England are in a quandary. Every girl suggested to be the May queen is shot down by the investigative prowess of Florence Pike, housekeeper to the stuffy, autocratic Lady Billows.
When the committee comprised of the vicar, the constable, the schoolmarm and Lady Billows runs out of potential female candidates, none of whom passes their stringent moral muster, Superintendent Budd timidly offers a suggestion: How about a May king? A greengrocer named Albert Herring, he says, is as pure as the driven snow, primarily because of his domineering, widowed mother.
The committee visits the home of Albert and his mum to give them the wonderful news that he has been selected to be May king. This sits very well with Mum, who relishes both the designation and the 25 pounds which accompany it, but shy Albert is unhappy with the thought of being paraded around in white.
Come May Day, Albert’s happy-go-lucky pal, Sid the butcher, and Sid’s girlfriend Nancy the baker spike Albert’s lemonade with rum. Loosened up eventually with the liquor and depressed when he overhears Sid and Nancy talking about him later, Albert escapes his house for a night of adventure.
When the next morning arrives and Albert is missing, a search committee is formed to find the AWOL king. Surely Albert has not soiled the proper judgment of the committee by doing anything untoward, has he? What will people think?
Highlights: Union Avenue Opera’s 23rd season is off to an invigorating start with a charming rendition of this three-act chamber opera written in 1947 by British composer Benjamin Britten. Light-hearted in concept and smooth in execution, Albert Herring makes for an evening of gentle comedy and melodious music winningly delivered by conductor Scott Schoonover, director Tim Ocel and their entire cast and crew.
Other Info: Britten’s entertaining comedy is a well-prepared souffle, light and frothy in taste and texture albeit gently skewering the stuffed shirts who make it their duty to foist their definition of morality on others, a continual concern in any society.
Eric Crozier’s libretto is based on a short story by French writer Guy de Maupassant. Given the generally easy-going nature of the work, Britten wrote his music to be performed as a chamber opera rather than a full-fledged orchestra. UAO artistic director Schoonover not only elicits a hearty and healthy reading of the score by his dozen or so musicians, he also imbues the interpretation with musical points which accentuate the work’s comic elements.
For his part, stage director Ocel renders an amusing adaptation of the story with a cast that interprets the sundry types of stock characters with just the right touch of whimsy, neither overblown nor under-utilized. That careful balance pays handsome dividends for the audience.
Christine Brewer, who is the major name on the marquee, is in excellent form as the pushy Lady Billows. She utilizes her famous soprano voice to succinctly shape the starchy superiority of the town matriarch, wagging her imposing cane in the face of anyone who dares challenge her. It’s an amusing performance as well as an accomplished musical one.
Tenor David Walton shines in the title role. The resignation in his face says everything you need to know about Albert, who is his mother’s dutiful son even at the expense of his own enjoyment until he is appalled at the prospect of being paraded around as someone else’s epitome of virtue. Walton’s accomplished voice suitably handles Albert’s musical laments in graceful style.
The splendid supporting cast includes Camdenton, Mo. native Nathaniel Buttram as the irrepressible butcher Sid, Holly Janz as the sympathetic baker’s daughter Nancy and Debra Hillabrand as the officious busybody Florence Pike. UAO favorite Anthony Heinemann delights as the town politician who kowtows all too easily to the blustery Lady Billows, while Mark Freiman lends his rumbling bass to the role of the simple-minded constable.
Also appearing are Janara Kellerman, whose formidable mezzo-soprano as Albert's mother dominates Britten’s score as powerfully as Lady Billows rules over the denizens of Loxford. Leann Schuering and David Dillard do justice to the roles of town teacher and vicar, respectively, while Gina Malone, Victoria Butero and Seth Drake sparkle as the mischievous children Emmie, Cis and Harry, respectively.
Kyra Bishop’s scenic design features some plump, comfy furniture which represents Lady Billows’ abode, as well as a tall, handsomely stocked storefront that represents Albert’s grocery mart, enhanced with Laura Skroska’s judiciously selected props. David Levitt shrewdly lights the imposing set whileTeresa Doggett’s costumes pinpoint both locale and period.
With Ocel and Schoonover each providing spirited guidance, Union Avenue’s Albert Herring makes for a most humorous and enchanting offering.
Opera: Albert Herring
Company: Union Avenue Opera
Venue: Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 North Union Blvd.
Dates: July 14, 15
Tickets: $30 to $55; contact 361-2881 or unionavenueopera.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb