Frost Opera Theater triumphs in delightful “Albert Herring”

By Lawrence Budmen

Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring is a marvel of wit, musical parody and theatrical ingenuity. The University of Miami Frost Opera Theater’s current production, which opened Thursday night at Gusman Concert Hall, does full justice to this brilliant comic opera.

In 1947 Britten created this wonderful music theater hybrid with librettist Eric Crozier, light years from his usual serious themes. Based on a short story by Guy de Maupassant, the tale of a provincial English village’s narrow-minded puritanical obsessions is both a scathing social critique and an incandescent meeting of text and music, the two twentieth-century masters at the top of their form. (Britten and Crozier also collaborated on The Rape of Lucrezia.)

When the pompous Lady Billows and her committee of town bigwigs are unable to find a single girl in the village who meets their moral standards to be crowned May Queen, they decide to select a May King for their festival instead and turn to the dim-witted Albert Herring who harbors the very desires they abhor. When he disappears¬† and uses his prize money for a night of drunken debauchery, the village’s moral censors are shocked but Herring is liberated, at last breaking with his restrictive and overprotective mother.

Britten’s parodies of Handel and Purcell are both hilarious and beautiful. The mayor’s patter ditty is right out of Gilbert and Sullivan while the frequent harp glissandos and string solos suggest the French style of Gounod and Massenet. Britten created distinctive, memorable characters and his masterful orchestral score flows with the vibrancy and instrumental elegance of Mozart.

Dean Southern’s deftly-paced production never overplays the comic moments while populating the stage with a plethora of eccentric, funny characters. Simone Meeks’ striking double set and Brian Law’s unobtrusive lighting move the action along seamlessly while April Soroko’s period costumes are just slightly exaggerated to aid the comedic mirth.

David Tayloe has a singular triumph in the title role. This excellent lyric tenor sings with Mozartean finesse and truly inhabits the character, his drunken scene and outrageous May King hat, uniform, and bearing both comic and poignant. Lindsey Rollins is a scene-stealing Lady Billows, fanatical and outrageous. Her large, voluminous soprano voice easily encompasses Britten’s almost Wagnerian vocal range.

Top honors in this ensemble cast go to Antoinne Barnes as a hilarious, super-pious vicar, displaying a dulcet baritone and superb comic timing. Judy Marchman relishes Britten’s sendups of coloratura pyrotechnics in the role of the starchy school teacher Miss Wordsworth, her high soprano soaring with ease above vocalists and instruments alike.¬† Jeffrey Williams brings a sizable bass-baritone and the comic style of a Mack Sennett silent movie cop to Superintendent Budd. Jeremy Zglobicki’s clueless mayor sings rapid-fire patter with the ease of a veteran thespian.

Jeffrey Wienand is delightfully cynical as Albert’s mischievous friend Sid, unfurling¬† plush baritonal tones in duet with Katherine Wiggins, glamorous and lyrical as his girlfriend Nancy. Charlotte Wooley makes the most of her pointed barbs in the role of Lady Billows’ housekeeper, her pliant mezzo filling out the ensemble suavely. Lora Pacholka is commanding in her brief opportunities as Mrs. Herring. The entire cast’s split second timing and zany interaction was a constant delight.

Alan Johnson conducted a skillful reduction of the score for twelve instruments with authority and a fine sense of dynamic contrasts. Casey Maltese’s stellar horn solos were a model of fine tone and perfect articulation amidst the excellent playing of members of the Frost Symphony Orchestra.

With a versatile cast and outstanding musical and theatrical direction, this Albert Herring is a high water mark for the Frost Opera Theater.

Albert Herring continues at Frost Opera Theater with performances 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Call 305-284-4886; http://www.miami.edu/frost/index.php/vocal_performance/opera/season/.

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Fri Mar 4, 2011
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