British composer Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring is a challenging opera for both performers and audiences accustomed to the usual Romantic classics. Though funny, it proved a serious undertaking for the Portland State University Opera this week at Lincoln Performance Hall. Delivered in two acts and several scenes, with three changes of bright creative scenery and lighting, the opera proved an achievement for these students, most of them undergraduates—and it succeeded in overcoming many of those challenges.
Britten composed Albert Herring after World War II and it debuted in 1947, when he directed it at England’s Glyndebourne Festival. The comic chamber opera portrays an uptight Victorian English town, similar to Britten’s own Lowestoft in Sussex. Its stuffy, class-conscious “dignitaries” decide the only person fit to be crowned May “king” (the queen potentials are voted down for their various sins and indiscretions) is the virginal, naive and henpecked Albert Herring.
That star role is sung here by uber-talented tenor Christian Sanders, who worked with the PSU cast this spring. He is a resident artist at the Utah Opera and has sung major roles in such operas as La Boheme, Falstaff, Little Women, the Magic Flute, Gianni Schicchi and Jules Massenet’s Cendrillon. He sang the prince chaplain in the 2013 world premiere of Theodore Morrison’s Oscar at the Santa Fe Opera with renowned countertenor David Daniels. So he’s been around.
Sanders’ maturity and versatility gave the opera, directed by stage veteran Brenda Nuckton, a professional texture. Early on, he played Albert as a tight-lipped insecure nerd toiling in his mother’s grocery store as hilariously he did the last act’s disheveled cad. He uses his 25-quid May Day prize to get thoroughly loaded, despite the town’s expectations of him as a goody-goody. He can still sing when drunk.
Sanders performed his transformative role with stage-savvy sparkle and athleticism, so onstage he convincingly overcame Albert’s awkwardness. The tenor approached the role as an outsider and misfit—and Britten creates these characters regularly—and he made Albert change and oddly–grow.
The students who took on smaller parts kept up with him, but Sanders had no competition for stardom. The opera reportedly reflects Britten’s life where his mother smothered him with ambitions to equal Beethoven, Brahms and Bach, and the music often mirrors the stifling, uneasy atmosphere. Kaitlyn Lawrence sang the controlling, sometimes hysterical Mrs. Herring, and she did it well.
Particularly notable were baritone Erik Standifird as Sid, the butcher’s son who eggs Albert on toward his coming-of-age rebellion, and mezzo-soprano Grace Skinner as Florence Pike, the beleaguered assistant of the pompous Lady Billows (soprano Helen Soultanian in her first leading role). Skinner is a recent grad of PSU, and she and Standifird possessed the chops to head for something big. Bari-tenor Jereme Wilkie as Vicar Gedge was convincing as well. He livened up PSU’s Cinderella, a much weaker production, and composition, than this fresh Herring.
Developing singers, whose acting ability precedes their vocal qualifications, portrayed other quirky characters. A double cast alternates several roles, so many students are able to participate.
Most of the challenges the opera poses are musical. The music is gently atonal, if not overwhelmingly so. A 13-member chamber group drawn from the full PSU Opera Orchestra, accompanied the singers with aplomb and performed several lengthy tricky interludes, a Britten hallmark. Director Ken Selden, looking chic with his red-rimmed glasses and matching jacket trim, restrained the orchestra from overplaying and drowning out the singers.
As for the singing, the ensemble pieces, including a final-act nonet, are many and varied, and the music is not easy going for the performers. The opera has a distinctive harmonic vocabulary, and students worked hard to learn it. The mostly tight ensembles reflected students’ diligent efforts to understand and perform contemporary music.
Britten’s operas are among the most performed of 20th century composers, so the challenge and choice of opera was not extraordinary for the PSU artistic team. Eric Crozier’s clever libretto is based on 19th century French writer Guy de Maupassant’s story, Le Rosier de Madame Husson. It’s replete with couplets and poetic wordplay, and even if you didn’t adore the music, the libretto was lots of fun, unlike so many stupid opera librettos. Sung in English, the subtitles helped. Not everyone’s articulation was perfect, nor is it always among the pros.
Aside from the artistic and musical teams, a shout goes out to set designer Megan Wilkerson, an Artists Repertory Theatre resident artist, for her visually striking sets, and to recent PSU grad Hadley Yoder for her Victorian-era costumes. In the May Day celebration scene where Albert is crowned king, the pastel costumes and scenery complemented one another without being cornily overmatched. Topped off with a fresh-flower crown for Albert, this part was gorgeous to look at and to hear.
The one challenge this production couldn’t quite overcome is its length. My biggest criticism is that the opera was too long for a student production. The PSU web site says to expect two hours, but the opera lasted closer to three. A 15-minute intermission comes halfway through to help, and I’m unsure how the piece could have been shortened. Otherwise the production deserves much praise for its foray into modern music and making it mostly entertaining. Despite how long it has to sit out onstage, this Herring was far fresher than half-baked.