On Saturday, the forces of Los Angeles Opera decided to make the most of it. It was the opening of the current season’s fifth production Albert Herring, the second chamber-size opera from Benjamin Britten the company has staged in as many years. Herring is quintessential Britten – a male outsider is further persecuted by a stifling, moralizing community. But unlike Billy Budd or Peter Grimes, Albert Herring is played for laughs. Herring is the virginal son of a greengrocers widow in a rural English village who is unknowingly chosen by the town’s busy-body elders as the “May King,” a young man held up to others as a paragon of moral virtue. Herring is shy and bewildered by the everyday passions of those around him. He plays along without much to say until his friends Sid and Nancy spike his lemonade turning the tables on the upstanding citizens of Loxford and awakening a new world in Albert. The story shares a lot with Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore right down to the Tristan und Isolde references with Britten directly lampooning Wagner’s famous love theme. Of course, Herring, unlike Nemorino, is avoidant of women and his awakening has more to do with throwing off his mother’s apron strings than finding romantic love.
Britten’s opera is a small one written for a chamber-size orchestra and an ensemble vocal cast with few showy solo parts. L.A. Opera does well by Britten’s score and gives the show a huge, luxurious production across the board. James Conlon and his players dug into the score at times like it was Wagner. The production is a very cute, colorful affair, directed by the affable Paul Curran, which originated with the Santa Fe Opera in 2010. It achieves the first goal of comedy by producing real laughs in the audience. Curran gets involved and well-timed performances from many in the cast including Ronnia Nicole Miller as Florence Pike and Liam Bonner and Daniela Mack as Albert’s friends Sid and Nancy. And I’d be remiss in not mentioning some of the others in the cast like Janis Kelly who portrays a rather understated Lady Billows. (The role will be taken over for two performances by Christine Brewer later in the run.) Billow’s chorus of town worthies were all quite accomplished including Richard Bernstein, Jonathan Michie, Robert McPherson, and Stacey Tappan.
But perhaps the most substantial thing in this evening of light comedy is a wonderful performance from tenor Alek Shrader in the title role. Albert is somewhat of a placeholder through much of the opera, stammering and uncomfortably standing around until his intoxication. But a lengthy Act III soliloquy gives him plenty to say and covers the range of an emotional transformation that Shrader manages expertly. He excels at both the physical comedy and sounds youthful and warm above the orchestra in a sizable house. His portrayal immediately opens Albert up as a likable young man to the audience and makes the weightier parts of the score believable.
Of course, too much attention can be a bad thing and the show can sometimes feel a bit overblown. The music and drama tended to flag in the final act without a certain succinctness. Just a bit to much grandeur weighs the proceeding down and the lovely set looked tiny on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage surrounded by an awful lot of dark space around its sliver of British springtime sky. But this Albert Herring retains its humor and good heart for the most part and still manages to charm.