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19.3.05

Albert Herring at CUA

Benjamin T. Rome School of Music, Ward Recital HallThe Benjamin T. Rome School of Music's Opera Theatre, at The Catholic University of America, workshops and stages operas with the school's best student singers. Their latest production is Benjamin Britten's comic chamber opera Albert Herring (check out these images of the original score and related documents), which I saw in the small but workable Ward Recital Hall. (In the interest of full disclosure about my possible bias in the following review, I am a proud alumnus of the School of Music at CUA, where I received my Ph.D. in 1998.)

The limitations inherent to this level of performance are to be expected. The already small stage was further crowded by two grand pianos, back to back, that provided the orchestral parts (played admirably by Nicholas Catravas and Adam Turner, both of whom added a few bell and percussion effects with their free third hands). Robert Casal's shaky performance of the horn solo at the opening of Act II was understandable considering how exposed the part is, and it only made me miss the orchestral presence more. While the placement of the pianos may have helped protect the smaller voices from being overplayed (and gave director Michael Scarola the open pit area to work with, which he used ingeniously), it meant that conductor Stephen Czarkowski was back to back with his singers most of the time, leading to a number of minor rhythmic discombobulations (for example, in the striking funeral ensemble in Act III, when the staging had the entire cast in a single line, facing the audience and backs to the conductor, from one side of the stage to the other). Some conductors may think that singers never pay them attention anyway, but most still prefer to live the illusion and at least be able to wave a hand in front of a singer's face.

Albert Herring (1947) is a very funny opera, with a brilliant libretto by Eric Crozier, adapted from Guy de Maupassant's short story Le rosier de Madame Husson (translated into English as Madame Husson's Rosebush). The best performances last night were those in which singers had a tight comic control over their roles. Tenor Robert Legge, with his broad, guileless smile, captured the naïveté of the title character and sang strongly and with beautiful tone. Soprano Jessie Sutherland was a repellent grotesque as the town's hypocritical moral authority, Lady Billows, ably assisted by Veronica Jaeger as her pinched know-it-all secretary, Florence Pike. The strongest vocal performances came from soprano Keesun Kwon, who demonstrated sure coloratura agility and purity of sound (if sometimes slightly weak in production) as the showoff teacher Miss Wordsworth; tenor Issachah Savage in a powerful (if sometimes incomprehensible in diction) rendition of the mayor, Mr Upfold; and mezzo soprano Annie Giammatteo as the domineering Mrs Herring.

The production was a real pleasure, with beautiful costumes and effective, although minimal, sets for Michael Scarola's inventive staging. Mr. Scarola's involvement as Visiting Director of Opera Theatre is another of the good ideas that Dean Murry Sidlin has brought to the School of Music during his tenure. (See the interview with Michael Scarola by Karren Alenier, From Singer to Director: The Métier of Michael Scarola, in the February issue of scene4.) Thanks to Scarola's direction, the singers all seemed comfortable with their characters and seemed different from one another (children from adults, low class from high class). Only the coy interactions between the cast and the conductor and pianists, exploited for cheap laughs about twenty times too many (maids dusting their hands, servants offering them food, and so on), eventually seemed precious.

Two performances of Albert Herring remain at Catholic University. As far as I can determine from a typographical analysis of the symbols by the cast's names, more or less the same cast as Friday night will return for the Sunday matinee (March 20, 2 pm). Thursday's cast will take the stage again this evening (March 19, 8 pm).

UPDATE:
See also the review by Joan Reinthaler (Washington Post, March 19).

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