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Monday, March 4, 2013

Benjamin Britten’s Comic Masterpiece

Florentine Opera brings ‘Albert Herring’ to the stage

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Always enterprising in its efforts to offer new and varied productions, the Florentine Opera, having won Grammy awards for its world premiere recording of Rio de Sangre and its brilliant CD of Elmer Gantry, offers another departure from standard operatic fare with Benjamin Britten’s delightful chamber opera, Albert Herring. Composed in 1947 and based on a Maupassant short story transposed to East Suffolk at the turn of the 20th century, this charmingly sardonic work, scored for only 12 instruments, is lesser known than Britten’s more serious operas, Peter Grimes and Billy Budd. Albert Herring was a departure for this most versatile of British composers, renowned for choral, orchestral and vocal works, which he often composed for his life partner, tenor Peter Pears.

Albert Herring
was Britten’s fourth opera, and its tongue-in-cheek story may be an allegorical reference to Britten’s homosexuality. The villagers of Loxford, unable to find a young lady suitably virtuous to serve as Queen of the May, seize upon shy, virginal Albert Herring, repressed under the thumb of his mother, to serve as May King. The annual festival proves to offer a new lease on life for the unwilling Albert.

The complex score contains many musical refinements but its light-hearted charm and witty musical phrases are all Britten. The connecting musical interludes stand on their own. Florentine general director William Florescu calls it “a brilliant score—one of the comic masterpieces of the 20th century” and compares it to great works from earlier eras. “The brilliant musical depiction of each character is reminiscent of the subtlety of Mozart,” he says, “and while there are many shenanigans, there is more here than obvious buffoonery. It is never reduced to stock caricature and it infuses a lot of humanity into each characterization in the best sense of Mozart. Each character in Albert Herring is a major one with his own signature role spelled out musically. There are no minor characters.”

Florescu feels that modern operas are becoming more popularly accepted, although they require some getting used to by audiences accustomed to 19th-century Italian fare. He insists that opera companies cannot rely exclusively on old favorites and cites the Florentine’s Grammy-winning CDs as harbingers of the future. “I have great respect for traditional works,” he insists, “but it’s like plowing a field. If you plow the same area over and over, the field becomes anemic and fallow.” He adds that the endurance of the famous operas of the 18th and 19th centuries was possible only in a musical climate that encouraged acceptance of original work, and that Milwaukee is as good a place as any to try out newer operas. “New York is not the only barometer of quality or success,” Florescu says.

Albert Herring
is very funny, yet the music is never acerbic, dissonant or cute for its own sake. The score is surprisingly melodic. Think of the wit of late Stravinsky with a smattering of Samuel Barber’s warmth, and you may have a close approximation of Britten’s complex music.

The intimacy of the work will play well in the more immediate and warmer acoustics of Vogel Hall. Principal players will include Florentine regular Rodell Rosel as Albert, Kathy Pyeatt as the sanctimonious Lady Billows and Abigail Nims making her Florentine debut as Albert’s almost-lady friend, Nancy. The new production will rely on the experienced talents of scenic and lighting designer Noele Stollmack and costume designer Holly Payne. Christopher Larkin will conduct.

The Florentine Opera presents Albert Herring, March 8-17 at the Marcus Center’s Vogel Hall. For tickets, go to florentineopera.org.

Steve Spice is a retired educator interested in cultural sociology, particularly the historical background of Western music and the early development of motion pictures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TAGS: Benjamin Britten, comic opera, Florentine Opera Company, Albert Herring, Steve Spice, Rio de Sangre, Elmer Gantry, chamber opera, Guy de Maupassant, Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, Peter Pears, William Florescu, modern opera, Vogel Hall, Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, Rodell Rosel, Kathy Pyeatt, Abigail Nims, Noele Stollmack, Holly Payne, Christopher Larkin

 

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