Thing have reached a terrible pass in the English village of Loxford. Terrible, I tell you! Nobody is more attuned to the dire state of the town’s morals than Lady Billows, who fills her household book with such reminders as “Advert in chemist’s window indecent … tear it up!” and “No more poppies in altar vases … looks too Roman.” Now a new calamity has arisen: with all the young ladies tarnished by such shortcomings as having strolled in the woods at dusk or ridden in a dogcart on a Sunday during Lent, who among them can be tapped as Queen of the May? Desperate times call for desperate measures. There will be no May Queen this year. Instead, Lady Billows and her self-satisfied minions will crown a young man: Albert Herring, the pusillanimous, vice-free shop boy at the greengrocer’s, “an inoffensive lad … bit simple, of course,” as the vicar observes.
Thus is the plot primed for the 1947 opera Albert Herring, by composer Benjamin Britten and librettist Eric Crozier, one of the few comic operas of the post-World War II era to maintain a vigorous presence in the repertoire. Santa Fe Opera’s first-ever production of this charmer, which opened Saturday, July 31, sparkles with the effervescence of champagne. Oh, wait: not champagne. No alcohol at all for Lady Billows’ crowd, if you please, and especially not the rum with which shop-hand Sid spikes Albert’s lemonade at the May Festival coronation ceremony. In his inebriation, Albert disgraces the honor that has been bestowed on him, but he also glimpses the possibility of liberation from the limited life he has led until that time.
The company’s production, smartly directed by Paul Curran, is a delightful entertainment for a summer night. Britten and Crozier set the action in 1900. Here it’s moved forward to 1947 (the year of the work’s world premiere), and set and costume designer Kevin Knight has evoked that period to a fare-thee-well. Lady Billows’ parlor combines a touch of high-society pretense with a whiff of the leftover, and the grocery shop encapsulates the faded charm of this practical-minded village, some of which we see as miniature buildings in the distant background. Rick Fisher’s lighting invests the May Festival with a hopeful glow. The chamber orchestra twinkles under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis, whose pacing underscores the wry twists of the music.
Albert Herring is often produced in conservatories because it spotlights a handful of singers without making inordinately challenging vocal demands. In this production, however, Santa Fe Opera fills the leading roles with a cast that spills into the realm of the starry. The title role is marvelously handled by Alek Shrader, himself not long out of conservatory, who received a career boost as a winner of the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. His light, penetrating lyric tenor sounded perfectly in place, and he seemed a natural actor, wisely allowing the score to guide him rather than imposing an extraneous interpretation on a part that depends on simplicity.
Nonetheless, the show is stolen by the soprano Christine Brewer as Lady Billows. Her portrayal balances delicately on a tripod of distaste, disgust, and disdain. For a soprano who makes her living through Elektra or Salome, for example, singing Lady Billows is practically a walk in the park, from a vocal standpoint. Brewer could easily have buried this part; in not doing so, she was wickedly amusing. She also seemed to have designs on the young vicar, freshly sung by the light-toned baritone Jonathan Michie, a Santa Fe Opera apprentice who signed on to the role only a couple of weeks ago through the domino effect of a cast displacement in The Tales of Hoffmann.
Three other singers from Hoffmann also reappear in Albert Herring: tenor Mark Schowalter as the mayor, mezzo-soprano Jill Grove as Lady Billows’ maid (her nonchalant blowsiness standing in hilarious opposition to her demanding employer), and mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey. Lindsey’s beautifully modulated singing brought affecting nuance to the part of Nancy, Sid’s girlfriend, and in the course of the opera she achieved a touching transformation of character; her morals may indeed be a bit laissez-faire, but after the adventure with Albert’s spiked lemonade, she is going to think more carefully about the consequences of her actions.
Joshua Hopkins was a delight as Sid, fully fueled on hormones, confident in his charm. His voice is precisely centered, bright, warm, and supple, and when he duetted with Shrader one could only be heartened by the display of youthful singing of robust technical health. Baritone Dale Travis was the police superintendent, weary from surveying the drama of his oddball community. The soprano Celena Shafer seemed hyperactive as the schoolteacher, her attempt to depict flightiness not quite hitting the mark. Mezzo-soprano Judith Christin is a first-rate singer-actor, and her portrayal of Albert’s mother could have assumed monstrous battiness if Lady Billows hadn’t been there to make her cower. All told, it was a corking good time.
— James M. Keller