Monday, July 21, 2008

Virtue Put in its Place

The Merola Opera Program presented the first of its two complete opera productions at the Cowell Theater in San Francisco. The opera was Albert Herring, composed by Benjamin Britten with a libretto by Eric Crozier, based on the story, "Le Rosier de Madame Husson," by Guy de Maupassant. The work is a comic chamber opera, written (at least according to its Wikipedia entry) as a "companion piece" to the far more serious Rape of Lucretia. The term "chamber" applies less to the rather generous cast of characters than to the musical resources, in which, as in The Turn of the Screw performed at the Cowell at the end of the spring, each "voice" is a solo: first violin, second violin, viola, cello, bass, flute (including alto and piccolo), oboe, clarinet (including bass), bassoon, horn, harp, a single percussion performer, and "recitative" piano. The Merola company is less a "suburban" affair (as I had described the San Francisco Lyric Opera in their Screw production) than a workshop setting for singers who have completed their education and are embarking on careers as opera performers. Albert Herring is an excellent opera for such a setting. The music is both challenging and enjoyable, and the comedy provides an opportunity to take on more dramatic substance and creativity than one encounters in the usual bel canto repertoire.

The basic story concerns a small market town, Loxford in East Sussex, whose one blue-blooded resident, Lady Billows, is annoyed about the deterioration of morals. Her annoyance comes to a climax when it is discovered that none of the girls of the town is "morally fit" to be crowned Queen of the May; so, to teach the girls a lesson, the "search committee" decides to elect a May King, choosing Albert Herring, a shy and dull young man who has been under his mother's thumb for as long as anyone can remember. Sid, the closest to a friend that Albert has, finds this absurd and decides to teach this "moral majority" a lesson. At the crowning ceremony he spikes Albert's lemonade with rum. The transformation exceeds Sid's expectations: Albert gives himself such a night on the town that he cannot be found the next morning. The villagers turn on a dime from despair over his presumed death to fury when he appears in a hung over state. Nevertheless, Albert emerges from it all as a stable (no longer shy) force of moderation, who is finally capable of getting a life.

Albert's role makes for an interesting musical affair. For roughly half the opera we hear little from him other than the odd polite note or two; but, once the rum takes effect, we get to enjoy major stretches of solo tenor writing. This is particularly important, since none of the other characters has anything close to an aria: almost all of this opera is driven by (usually rather clever) dialog, often spiked with arch references, such as the schoolteacher named Miss Wordsworth (who appropriates Emily Dickenson in her speech at the May Day ceremony and presents Albert with the award of a two-volume edition of Foxe's Book of Martyrs) and the vicar Gedge, whose advocacy of Albert's virtue verges on Keats' Grecian urn. For his part Britten is not shy about matching Crozier's wit with his own. Every mention of Foxe is accompanied by the ominous sound of a large gong, while the pouring of the rum into Albert's glass draws upon the inevitable passage from Tristan und Isolde.

All of this provides ample opportunity for the performers to have fun with their work; and that is precisely what the Merola cast did, without sacrificing the seriousness of technique required to make sure that the fun found its way across the stage and into the audience. Lady Billows, sung by Kate Crist, made her entrance in a wheelchair with all the imposing presence of Doctor Strangelove and dominated every scene in which she appeared. However, the center of attention was James Benjamin Rodgers, who nailed Albert's transformation perfectly. His "before" Albert was played exactly according to plan without deteriorating into a ridiculous prig. One understands why Sid (sung by Darren Perry) sees potential in him. His first extended solo, at home after the ceremony, where his mother is expecting him to go to bed, delivered a wonderful sense of the emergence of the "new Albert," which makes the opening of the third act, in which the entire village assumes he has died and is searching for his body, all the more ludicrous. Finally, Rodgers provided this "new Albert" with just the right combination of backbone and proper manners to face up to not only Lady Billows but (more importantly) his own mother.

All this was presumably the product of the two directors behind this production: Peter Kazaras for the staging and Mark Morash for musical direction. Similarly, the Cowell Theater deserves credit for providing a stage of a scale appropriate to the drama (as it did for The Turn of the Screw). Martha Graham used to say that comedy is always far more difficult to deliver than tragedy. If that is really the case (rather than just an apology for her own work), then the skills of the current Merola crew bode well for the future of opera!

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