Vil­lage voices

Pasatiempo - - Pasa Reviews - “Al­bert Her­ring” con­tin­ues with per­for­mances on Aug. 13, 18, 21, and 25. Santa Fe Opera is seven miles north of Santa Fe on U.S. 84/285. Tick­ets are $29 to $194; $10 stand­ing room. Rush dis­count tick­ets are avail­able for se­niors & stu­dents. Call 986-5900

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

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