The Santa Fe Opera maintained two traditions that are now synonymous with its 2010 summer season last night: The first was getting an opening night performance (of yet another new production) successfully on stage; the other was doing so amid foul weather. As penetrating threads of lightening splintered the cryptic night skies of Santa Fe, and sonic eruptions of thunder rattled the canyon below Santa Fe Opera’s Valhalla-like setting–as rain poured down intermittently–, the audience was treated to lighter fare in the form of Benjamin Britten’s three act comic opera, Albert Herring; being performed here for the first time.
The story of young Albert is that of a morally correct, fine upstanding young man who lives in the small town of Loxford in East Suffolk, and is suddenly thrust into the glare of a spotlight where he does not wish to be. The town’s Festival Committee, unable to find a suitable May Queen, decides instead to crown a May “King”, with Albert being the reluctant recipient. Albert, while shy and unassuming, is not without desires and dreams of his own. The idea of possibly traveling away from this small town and no longer tending to the small grocery store along side his somewhat overbearing mother, has particular appeal….at least in his musings. No matter, as the Festival Committee who has been grousing about the recent moral decay of society (particularly among the female set), and amid hopes of extending the greatness of the British Empire via its own small local contribution, has different and long lasting plans for Albert. A party ensues in his honor, where he is crowned, receives a twenty five pound (quid) financial gift, a book on Martyrs, and a Bible, of course. Amid small town pomp and circumstance, speeches, and songs, Albert becomes drunk on lemonade spiked with rum–thanks to the prankster antics of his friend Sid (Joshua Hopkins) and his willing–sort of–accomplice and girlfriend Nancy (Kate Lindsey).
Rumors fly quickly through this small town that Albert has indeed fallen from grace, and further conjecture brings us to the point where it is widely believed that Albert has indeed died, or been killed, as a result of a drunken “row”, or some other sort of disaster. As the Festival Committee who anointed him, now mourns his passing in a too long, but extremely well written and sung, lament; Albert (nicely portrayed by Alek Shrader) suddenly appears from the basement storage facility of the little grocery mart…with girl in tow, still a bit drunk–but sobering, and is immediately vilified. In a sort of ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off‘ soliloquy, Albert explains away this one time drunken episode, claiming he has now “been there and done that”, and wishes to get back to being just plain Albert Herring, while at the same time standing up to his mother…thus finally becoming his own man. A bit of frivolity returns to the shop, and with candy all around to the town’s children, a fresh peach for Sid and Nancy, and a new sense of ‘being’ for Albert, the opera comes to a happy and frolicking conclusion.
What is missing in the construct above is mention of Benjamin Britten’s ever revolving, constantly revisited theme of “innocence comprised”. While a lighter take on the subject, to be sure; and a necessary relief from the handling of this message in his other works such as Billy Budd, Peter Grimes, The Rape of Lucretia, and others; it must be noted that Britten’s obsession with this disturbing argument is, in and of itself, disturbing. While much has been written about Britten’s return to this subject matter, I would like to submit that this repeated litany is better suited for analysis by professional practitioners, rather than this “arm-chair” opera critic. And yet, it must be said that the sublimation of Britten’s intense preoccupation with this troubling human motif has produced outstanding musical and artistic triumphs.
A series of over-the-top performances and ‘Gilbert and Sullivanesque’ staging bits in Act I almost jeopardized an otherwise fine production, as it it spiraled downward toward near implosion within 25 minutes. Fortunately, Paul Curran’s usual strong direction reigned in the overwhelming star power of this ensemble cast by Act II, giving us more believable characters, as opposed to the almost silly caricatures that he allowed to be unleashed so early on (Lady Billows eccentric Act II costuming not withstanding). While all the roles were very well sung, including a very admirable performance by Jonathan Michie as the vicar Mr. Gedge (replacing a reassigned Wayne Tigges), and appropriately strong contributions were offered by all, the only true standout in the cast was the savvy veteran tenor Mark Schowalter, whose portrayal of Mayor Upfold was just understated enough that he was plausibly authentic the entire evening. Resisting the temptation to compete with his colleagues’ exaggerated portrayals allowed Mr. Schowalter to sing especially well and, oddly enough, stand-out amongst the crowd.
However, the unvarnished star of the evening might well have been Sir Andrew Davis and the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra. Davis kept his forces tick-tight the entire evening; their finest playing reserved for the orchestral interludes that underscored the scene changes. While as beautiful and lush as Puccini (only in a different way), Davis never allowed too much sentiment or overblown opulence to creep into his performance of this Britten; thereby allowing the singers to always be heard, and Eric Crozier’s text to be fully understood. Special mention must be made of the winds and percussion sections, who dealt with the sometimes rich, sometimes tricky score, with complete authority.
Kevin Knight’s scenic designs provided for perfectly synchronized and balletic scene shifts that actually elicited applause from the opening night crowd, while Rick Fisher’s lighting designs allowed us ample opportunity to see just enough of the risque interplay that ensued outside of Herring’s grocery mart.
For the record, the other finely assembled ensemble cast members included Christine Brewer (Lady Billows), Jill Grove (Florence Pike), Celena Schafer (Miss Wordsworth), Dale Travis (Mr. Budd), Judith Christin (Mrs. Herring); with fine contributions made by Erin Sanzero (Emmie), and Jamie-Rose Guarrine (Cis), respectively.