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Summer Opera: Castleton Festival 4

(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)
The first year of Lorin Maazel's Castleton Festival came to a close this weekend, meaning one last road trip to Rappahannock County for me to see the final production: Michael Lodico will have some thoughts about the festival's closing day tomorrow. Of the four Britten chamber operas on the schedule, Albert Herring, composed in 1947, is my least favorite. At its best, it is a very funny opera, making it a favorite for collegiate opera companies, with a charming, if somewhat overlong 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). In a way, Albert Herring is the obverse of the Peter Grimes coin, a little like a slapstick parody of that much greater work, with the social outcast transformed from sociopath to awkward mama’s boy (in fact, Claire Seymour noted numerous self-borrowings Britten made from Grimes in Albert Herring). Although Crozier's first impulse was the thought of writing a comic opera after seeing performances of Così fan tutte and The Bartered Bride, is Albert Herring really a "parable of liberation," as Philip Brett once described it?

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.

Adrian Kramer (Sid), Tammy Coil (Nancy), Benjamin Bloomfield (Superintendent Budd), Jennifer Check (Lady Billows), Alexander Tall (Mr. Gedge), Rachel Calloway (Mrs. Herring), Tyler S. Nelson (Mr. Upfold), Kristin Patterson (Florence Pike), Ashleigh Semkiw (Miss Wordsworth), Brian Porter (Albert Herring) in Albert Herring, Castleton Festival, 2009 (photo by Melody Mudd)
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.

Other Reviews:

T. L. Ponick, 'Herring' sparks festival (Washington Times, July 20, 2009)

Anne Midgette, Lorin Maazel, Fostering Artistry at Home (Washington Post, October 13, 2008)
Young conductor Timothy Myers, who was also at the podium for Wolf Trap's production of Così earlier this month, stood in for Maazel at all three performances, shaping the score confidently and managing to get everyone back on track after a nervous slip by Florence Pike put her ahead of the pit. The talented musicians from the Royal College of Music seemed mostly to go with Myers, who not only conducted the production but prepared it, having fun with the many comic effects of whistles, clunky string harmonics, timpani glissandi, and giving a pleasant swing to the jazz-influenced courting music of Sid and Nancy. The horn calls that open the second act, played by Samuel Pearce, were especially fine, as were the wild warbling of running notes in the winds and the lengthy interscenic dialogue of bass clarinet and (alto?) flute.

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