(L to R) Jennifer Check (Lady Billows), Benjamin Bloomfield (Superintendent Budd), Ashleigh Semkiw (Miss Wordsworth), Tyler S. Nelson (Mr. Upfold), Alexander Tall (Mr. Gedge) in Albert Herring, Castleton Festival, 2009 (photo by Leslie Maazel)
One suspects that the attraction Britten, Pears, and Crozier felt to Albert was, on some level, returning to the idea of a man who knew he did not fit in. Is the reason that Albert has remained so virtuous and pure that he simply does not like girls, as suggested in a homosexual reading mined from the opera by Michael Wilcox? If that was in the back of their minds, the creators did not go in that direction as the work took shape, and a certain distance between Britten and Albert always strikes my ears. Albert Herring Anglicizes the Maupassant tale, making the prudish busybody Madame Husson into the imperious Lady Billows, transferring the day of the festivities from August 15, the Feast of the Assumption, to May Day, and moving the story from the provincial closed-mindedness of Gisors to a hypocritical Suffolk village (given the imaginary name Loxford, likely based on Yoxford, a town not far from Aldeburgh). It also removes some of the French original's caustic bite -- Maupassant's Isidore, after losing all of his prize money on an all-night bender after the festivities, becomes the town drunkard and later dies in an attack of the DT's, leading the locals to name all of the local drunks le rosier de Mme Husson -- and that sanitizing seems a little dishonest in Britten.
Rising soprano Jennifer Check, who may not have impressed in recital a few years ago, has had considerable success at the Met and other opera houses. On Friday night, she reigned over the cast as a most potently voiced and absurdly draconian Lady Billows, slicing effortlessly through the many, generally noisy ensembles and reacting with good comic timing to the direction of William Kerley. The other women, somewhat overshadowed, included a slightly strained but husky Kristin Patterson as Lady Billows's assistant, Florence Pike, the flutey soprano of Ashleigh Semkiw as Miss Wordsworth, and the edgy bite of Tammy Coil's Nancy. Among the men, the gullible, sweet-voiced Albert of Brian Porter was upstaged by the more stentorian voices of Adrian Kramer's Sid, a little roughshod, and the more subtle Mr. Gedge of Alexander Tall. Much like Così fan tutte this is an ensemble opera, and the cast was a cohesive and well-balanced group, giving clear renditions of the vocal fugues of the opening scene, for example.
None of the possible dark subtext of Albert Herring figures in the Castleton production. Not that it should, since on the surface, the opera is a simple comedy of manners, although the ambiguity of the conclusion strikes the ears as at least inconclusive. Maazel has made a point of railing in print, on many occasions, against the excesses of directors who apply the rules of Regietheater to opera. In his new Resident Stage Director for the Castleton Festival, William Kerley, Maazel has found a traditional director after his own heart. Like his other three festival productions, Kerley's vision of Albert Herring is mostly traditional, down to the meticulously coached English accents (only in The Rape of Lucretia, not actually set in Great Britain, were American accents allowed). The set, designed once again by Nicholas Vaughan, features a grass-green sloping staircase at the back, with miniature building shapes that evoke the cozy village. Little details bring out comic moments, like the hell-flash lighting that highlights the copy of John Foxe's Book of Martyrs given to Albert at the May King ceremony.
T. L. Ponick, 'Herring' sparks festival (Washington Times, July 20, 2009)
Anne Midgette, Lorin Maazel, Fostering Artistry at Home (Washington Post, October 13, 2008)