Review: Countdown to the Britten Centennial: Conductor James Conlon, Director Paul Curran in Reverential Mounting of Britten’s “Albert Herring” – Los Angeles Opera, February 25, 2012

Opera companies around the world have been preparing for the 2013 bicentennial celebrations of the births of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, the two mid-19th century giants of the operatic repertory. The year also marks the centennial of the birth of British composer Benjamin Britten.

At least four of Britten’s 13 operas (“Billy Budd”, “Peter Grimes” “Death in Venice” and “Midsummer Night’s Dream”)  can be regarded as being part – more or less –  of the standard performing repertory of the major international opera companies.

The Chamber Opera at the Dorothy Chandler

The Los Angeles Opera’s music director, James Conlon, has championed the mounting by the major opera companies of Britten’s smaller works. In back to back seasons counting down to the Britten centennial he has conducted performances of Britten’s chamber operas – as musically sophisticated as “Grimes” and “Budd”, but conceived to be performed in venues more modest than the large Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in which the Los Angeles Opera performs..

Last season, Britten’s ghost story “Turn of the Screw” was performed [See my review at Countdown to Britten Centennial: Conlon, Racette and Burden Impress in Enigmatic “Turn of the Screw” – March 12, 2011.] This year Britten’s only operatic comedy, “Albert Herring” was chosen for presentation to Los Angeles audiences. Both “Turn of the Screw” and “Albert Herring” have small orchestras, consisting of around a dozen virtuoso instrumentalists.

[Below: Alek Shrader as Albert Herring; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Even  though both of these chamber operas were performed by the Los Angeles Opera two decades ago, for their presentations in the second decade of the 21st century, the company imported recent festival productions – the former from England’s Glyndebourne Festival, the latter from the 2010 Santa Fe Opera Festival.

In the New Mexico mounting, the production was designed by the brilliant Scottish director Paul Curran, with Alek Shrader in the title role.  [For Tom’s review, see Superlative: Britten’s “Albert Herring” Brings Big Time Laugh-in to Santa Fe Opera – August 25, 2010.] Both Curran and Schrader (and the Vicar, Jonathan Michie) were enlisted for the performances in Los Angeles.

[Below: the lovers Sid (Liam Bonner, left) and Nancy (Daniela Mack, center) both perplex and intrigue Albert Herring (Alek Shrader, right); resized image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera]

Suffolk County Connections

“Albert Herring” was written only two years after the darker, tragic “Peter Grimes”, and  both operas are situated in the small towns of England’s County of Suffolk, where Britten was born – “Grimes” in the Coastal fishing village of Aldeburgh, “Herring” in the fictional inland village of Loxford.

Some commentators on Britten’s operas find that their plots abound with “outsiders” or “misfits”, seemingly suffocated by Suffolk society. But one can argue that Britten’s operatic Suffolkers are on the whole rather tolerant Britons accustomed to a “live and let live” attitude about their neighbors, even if busybodies like Loxford’s Lady Billows and Florence Pike or the fishing village’s Mrs. Sedley are accustomed to stirring things up.

Even the townspeople in Peter Grimes’ village afforded Grimes a chance to make amends after a serious first offense.  (I suspect a 21st century community would have been less willing to allow Grimes to apprentice underage children than the Aldeburgh in which Grimes worked.) But Herring is a misfit only in that he he does not have the sexual experiences of apparently everyone else in his age cohort. By the end of the opera, his conformity to prevailing practices (“everybody does it”) is fully assured. No misfit there.

Britten’s Characterizations

What is extraordinary about Britten’s operatic writing is how finely crafted is each of the characters. In “Albert Herring” almost every person is associated with a particular orchestral instrument, which provides seemingly limitless possibilities for humor. This provides an opportunity for artists to develop a quite distinctive portrayal of the character they are portraying.

[Below: prominent citizens of Loxford, Miss Wordsworth (Stacey Tappan, seated left), Mayor Upfold (Robert McPherson, seated center) and Vicar Gedge (Jonathan Michie, seated right) and Superintendent Budd (Richard Bernstein, standing) compare notes on whom they will recommend; resized image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

The lovers Sid, played by the Pittsburgh baritone Liam Bonner, and Nancy, by former San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow Daniela Mack, teamed two artists whose work has been praised in these columns [See, for example, my reviews of Bonner’s Demetrius. Incandescent Houston “Midsummer Night’s Dream” – January 25, 2009and Mack’s Idamante, An “Idomeneo” Surprise in San Francisco – Daniela Mack’s Princely Idamante – October 26, 2008.] Both Bonner and Mack are clearly experiencing the upward trajectory of their promising careers.

Their elders constitute a rich mine of character portrayals. Ronnita Nicole Miller’s Florence Pike had the vocal power we associate with this deep-voiced mezzo-soprano and a comic flair that she has relatively few occasions to display. Another vivid performance, from the well-regarded Metropolitan Opera basso Richard Bernstein, was that of the Superintendent of Police Budd.

Robert McPherson, whom I had praised as the Italian tenor in a San Francisco Opera production of Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier”, made a good impression as the Mayor, Mr Upfold. Veteran character actor Jane Bunnell was an excellent Mrs Herring. The major cast member who was new to me was Director Paul Curran’s fellow Glaswegian, Janis Kelly, who was the Lady Billows.

[Below: at the banquet in his honor, the May King, Albert Herring (Alek Shrader, second from left) is toasted by Superintendent Budd (Richard Bernstein, left), Lady Billows (Janis Kelly, third from left) Vicar Gedge (Jonathan Michie, third from right), Florence Pike (Ronnita Nicole Miller, second from right) and Miss Wordsworth (Stacey Tappan, right); resized image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

The opera is about the rites of passage of Albert Herring. Shrader’s performance was both vocally effective and emotionally affecting, displaying a range of behaviors encompassing drunkeness, anger, and the exhiliration of finally asserting his independence from the stultifying control of his behavior by his mother.

Stage Director Paul Curran

Paul Curran’s direction is a marvel of detail. Not only is the humor of each scene explored, but the changes between scenes entail some of the most complex, intricately choreographed stage movements that one will ever see in an operatic performance. In most of the Curran productions cited below, his collaborator has been set designer Kevin Knight, whose “Herring” sets cleverly conveyed the different moods of Lady Billows’ mansion, the grocer’s shop, and the picnic grounds.

[Below: Albert Herring (Alek Shrader,  center left in fighting stance) describes his night out to Miss Wordsworth (Stacey Tappan, left), Florence Pike (Ronnita Nicole Miller, secon from right) and Lady Billows (Janis Kelly, right); edoted image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Conductor James Conlon

Curran’s equal partner in presenting a first class performance of the Britten comedy is Conductor James Conlon, who delights in Britten’s score.

Any ticket-holders should make certain that they arrive an hour before performance time, to hear Conlon’s pre-performance discussion of what the audience should look for in Britten’s score.

Not everyone has the talent to make lectures in musicology a popular event, but Conlon has the knack for explaining how an opera’s music is constructed in ways that enhance the audience’s experiences.

For my reviews of other operas directed by Paul Curran, see: Superlative: Original 1951 “Billy Budd” Catches the Santa Fe Wind – August 14, 2008, and also,

“Lulu” at the Lyric – November 19, 2008, and also,

David Lomeli, Ana Maria Martinez Shine in Deeply Cast “La Boheme” – Santa Fe Opera, July 2, 2011.