While Benjamin Britten may be best known for his dramatic operas (Peter Grimes, Billy Budd), his satirical comedy Albert Herring is a delightful confection that displays the British composer's lighter side. Based on a French story by Guy de Maupassant, Britten and librettist Eric Crozier transferred the tale of small-town puritanical mores to the English countryside of Suffolk. The Miami Summer Music Festival opened a winning production of this charming work Friday night at Barry University's Broad Performing Arts Center.
Herring, the grocery clerk protagonist, is drafted by the village's leaders to be the May King in their annual holiday celebration when Lady Billows, the town's self appointed guardian, concludes that none of the local girls' behavior is sufficiently morally fit to be crowned Queen. Suppressed by his protective and domineering mother and the endless work of running the shop, Albert longs for more worldly exploits. When Albert's good-natured friend Sid and his girlfriend Nancy spike his juice drink with rum at the ceremony, Albert disappears and uses his prize money for a wild night of debauchery. The villagers believe he is dead. When Albert suddenly returns, they are shocked by his bedraggled appearance and tales of revelry. Liberated by his journey, Albert stands up to his mother and the stoical townspeople, taking charge of his life to the delight of Sid and Nancy.
The story may be slight, yet Britten's score is replete with charming instrumental effects, parodies of 19th century French opera and comic ditties worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan. Crozier's wordplay is filled with wit, the social satire played with a deft touch.
The Miami Summer Music Festival student singers and instrumentalists rose to the work's challenges in a worthy manner.
Matthew Maness's brightly pliant character tenor captured Albert's pathos as well as his comic side. Looking silly in his jacket and May King crown, the singer's tongue-tied attempt to give a speech and drunken scene were hilarious. Singing with expressive force and admirably clear diction, his final narrative was vivid and dramatic.
Jennifer Zamorano was a comically imperious Lady Billows with the powerful high range and projection to match. As her housekeeper Florence Pike, Candice Shaughnessy displayed chesty low notes and an appropriately snobbish demeanor.
Abigail Peterson was an aptly working class presence as Albert's Mum with just the right conniving demeanor, her clear mezzo radiating false charm. Eric Vinas brought movie-star charisma to Sid, his pleasant light baritone dominating his scenes. Sparks really flew in his duets with Sarah Anderson as Nancy, their voices wonderfully blended. Anderson, a stunning blonde, displayed a gorgeous mezzo with a striking timbre that would be perfect for Mozart's trouser roles.
Anthony Potts' well placed baritone and comic flair as the Vicar Gedge, Justin Kroll's penetrating tenor as Mayor Uphold and Jeremy Harr's deft bass patter as Superintendent Budd brought the pompous town officials to vivid life. As the school teacher Miss Wordsworth, Victoria Esposito sounded like a coloratura in the making with pinpoint high notes and fine ensemble singing. Valentina Ortiz, Catherine McAree and Alice del Simone played the three incorrigible children.
Alan Hicks' inventive production utilized projections (by Yee Eun Nam) of faux newspaper headlines announcing Albert's May King honors and disappearance ("Foul Play Suspected"). Camilla Haith's handsome costumes contributed to the finely etched characterizations. Yuki Izumihara's striking sets ranged from moonlit streets and a town square to the cramped grocery shop.
Steven Gathman conducted a supple performance, drawing first-rate playing from the chamber orchestra. Britten's orchestral effects were well served, with the clarion horn solo that opened Act II, and evocative wind playing in the interlude before the night scene particularly outstanding.