The Santa Fe Opera presents Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring with six performances: 7/31 (Premiere); 8/4; 8/13; 8/18; 8/21; and 8/25. For tickets: Call 505-986-5900
“All Hail, Albert!” After last week’s stunning premiere of Lewis Spratlan’s’ Life is a Dream, one might think that the Santa Fe Opera has nothing else up its proverbial sleeve. On the contrary, old chap! The first-ever Santa Fe production of Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring hit the boards with gusto and is sure to be a hot ticket! A rare comedy by Britten, Albert Herring is a real inversion of the dramatic tension Santa Fe audiences encountered with SFO’s productions of Britten’s Peter Grimes and Billy Budd in recent years. With its broadly-drawn English stereotypes and exuberant antics, this is a 20th century opera that will be accessible and appealing to anyone familiar with Monty Python or BBC comedies. Despite the obvious humor, however, themes that occupied Britten throughout his life are evident in this entertaining tale of a sensitive soul unconsciously yearning to be free. Community relationships and hierarchies, the dilemma of being on the outside of the in-crowd, and the perils of both innocence and dishonesty are endemic in Britten’s work. Although some might consider Albert Herring a lightweight work compared to Britten’s more hauntingly serious compositions, this opera fan thinks there is nothing wrong with a good laugh embedded in music of such beauty and complexity.
Set in the imaginary village of Loxford, the story involves its characters in the hunt for a Queen of the May, at a time when there seems to be a dearth of worthy young women of high moral character to accommodate the need. With ten major roles to fill, director Paul Curran (responsible for the terrific production of Britten’s Peter Grimes in 2005) came back to Santa Fe able to tap into some magical pool of talent, as the entire cast, and the casting, was top-notch. Not only were the voices superb, so was the acting, and its always such a pleasure when the pleasure is complete. Magnificent soprano Chrstine Brewer, who first appeared in Santa Fe in 1999, embodies Lady Billows, the village doyenne, to perfection. One wouldn’t want to cross this majestic representative of the British ruling classes, and her hovering minions certainly accommodated with appropriate subservience! As Florence Pike, her housekeeper and gossip conduit, Jill Grove combined verve and bawdiness in equal measures for her rich portrayal. The role of Teacher Wordsworth, frantic and fluttering, brought silver-voiced former apprentice Celena Shafer back to the Santa Fe stage. And the surprise casting of first-timer Jonathan Michie in the role of Vicar Gedge was every apprentice’s dream, when Wayne Tigges, formerly cast in the role, had to step into a role in The Tales of Hoffmann at the last minute. Mr. Michie has the voice and the acting chops to take him places beyond Loxford! Robustly rounding out the coterie of Lady Billows’ dogsbodies were Dale Travis as Police Superintendent Budd, suitably officious, and Mark Schowalter as Mayor Upfold, suitably eager to please.
The roles of the village folk also demand high quality singing, and none disappointed. The three village children were comprised of one real child, Richard Schmidt (kudos to this brave lad), and two apprentices, Erin Sanzero and Jamie-Rose Guarrine, all childish glee and high jinks. Joshua Hopkins as the butcher’s assistant Sid, exuded easy charm and a ringing baritone as he courted the light-hearted baker’s girl, Nancy, sung by Kate Lindsey, already receiving deserved acclaim this season for her portrayal of Nicklausse in Hoffmann. It is pure delight to see and hear Judith Christin, a much-loved regular in Santa Fe, return to us with her zesty and entertaining comic turn as Albert’s mother, Mrs. Herring. Welcome home, Ms. Christin, nuestra casa es tu casa! And as Albert Herring himself, pure as milk, timid as a lamb, Alek Schrader, making his Santa Fe Opera debut this season, won not only his 25 sovereigns as King of the May, but also the hearts of his audience as he finally breaks out in the only way he can, “a wild explosion!” This is quite an energetic feat when one considers that he is also appearing as Tamino in The Magic Flute. Such youthful stamina is much appreciated!
The orchestra shone under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis, Music Director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, making his Santa Fe Opera debut in this production. Trust a proper English gentleman to stroke the funny-bone of the score, which was by turns, lilting, bracing, somber and achingly sweet. Director Curran obviously understood when to make us laugh and when to make us sigh, and there was much of both. The scenic design and costumes of Kevin Knight were entirely appropriate and could have come right out of Galsworthy, with subtle and effective lighting design by Rick Fisher setting the mood on a temperate Santa Fe evening (temperate for those of us who attended the dress rehearsal, that is, since the Saturday premiere featured prominent roles played by lightning, thunder and rain!).
“All Hail, Albert, Long May He Reign!” A satisfying sentiment indeed! All Hail, John Crosby, for the visionary beginnings that brought us to this present moment. And Long May SFO Reign, a lovely likelihood under the able and attentive stewardship of General Director, Charles McKay. Get your tickets quick, only five more performances, and this is a can’t-miss!
All Santa Fe Opera photos by Ken Howard, with all rights reserved.