<< Front page Arts March 19, 2004

Albert Herring impresses, amuses and delights

Oberlin Opera Theater brings life to British work
By Sarah Carsman

Red Herring: Red Herring: Paul Wilhelm, Matthew Pena, Karen Jesse and Sarah St. Germain dazzled Hall Auditorium on Albert Herring’s opening night Wednesday.

“Virtue is its just reward — from us,” says the aging autocrat Lady Billows in Benjamin Britten’s delightful comic opera, Albert Herring. The Oberlin Conservatory Opera Theater’s production of this work is a reward in itself – both audience and cast enjoyed themselves thoroughly for the full duration of the three-hour-long but tightly-knit performance.

Albert Herring, conducted by Steven Smith and with stage direction by Jonathon Field, opened Wednesday night to an enthusiastic response. A quintessentially British opera, it tells the story of a small English town suffering from what its dignitaries deem “moral decay,” essentially, the sexual liberation of its young people. The dignitaries decide to take a stand against this decay in their selection of the May Queen. Since no young women of the town meet the moral standards of their leader, the domineering Lady Billows, they choose a May King instead. Their choice is Albert Herring, the simple but virtuous greengrocer’s son. Little do they expect that by using him as an example of morality for the town, they will end up liberating him from his repression and releasing him into “sinful” self discovery.

There is little not to like about the Oberlin Opera Theater’s production. Solid ensemble work abounds, both among singers and between singers and orchestra. The orchestra on the whole renders Britten’s challenging, complicated score with brilliant energy and unprecedented virtuosity. While the cast was a little tense during the first act, things loosened up as the production went on; the humor of the work came through more and more clearly as the show relaxed into itself. Occasional sloppiness was more than forgivable for an opening night performance.

Compelling performances by members of both casts touch on both the comic and the tragic, bringing out the darker side of Britten’s masterpiece in addition to its obvious British humor. The lead players are uniformly outstanding. Both senior Karen Jesse (Wed./Sat.) and junior Megan Hart (Fri./Sun.) bring diva-like flair to the role of Lady Billows, supported by impressive vocal prowess. Senior Matthew Pena (Wed./Sat.) and junior Nicholas Bentivoglio (Fri./Sun.) are likewise notable for their unique but equally compelling renderings of Albert Herring. The character of Sid, who unassumingly drives the plot to its ironic conclusion, is portrayed with comic mastery by senior Michael Weyandt (Wed./Sat.) and junior Jonathan Green (Fri./Sun.).

Albert Herring is a chamber opera, which means essentially that every role plays a major part; there are too many exceptional individuals in this production to mention them all. It is, however, impossible not to give credit to senior Marie Masters, junior Megan Radder and sophomore Mara Adler for their exquisitely clownish work in bringing to life the irritating but endearing children, Emmie, Cis and Harry. They form the comedic backbone of the story, mocking the priggishness of the elders while representing the follies of small town life in general.

This is a true chamber orchestra consisting of only thirteen players. They capture the biting humor and folk and pastoral qualities of Britten’s score with conspicuous mastery and zealous attention to the singers onstage. The performance gives no hint of the real difficulty of the score – kudos to the ensemble members and Steven Smith for providing a professional-quality accompaniment to the singers in the spotlight and a clear sense of the mood of each scene.

Albert Herring is a thoroughly enjoyable, musically rich and intelligent show. The Oberlin Opera Theater has without question produced yet another success with its wholly delightful rendition of a wholly delightful work.


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