Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Reverend's Reviews: Virgin Herring

The artistocratic, purity-loving Lady Billows in LA Opera's new production of Albert Herring hasn't got anything on arch-conservative presidential candidate Rick Santorum. One of the few comedic works by gay composer Benjamin Britten, the 1947 opera humorously skewers the politics and social mores of a small town in the British countryside. The Los Angeles revival, which runs through March 17th and is the company's first performance of the piece in 20 years, couldn't be better timed in light of our current US political debates.

As the month of May approaches each year, the pious Lady Billows (amusingly played and impressively sung in the opening night performance by corrals her town's leadership into naming a virtuous local girl as "the May Queen." The questionably-lucky young lady selected is traditionally feted for a day and will for the first time, as an enticement to other girls to protect their maidenhood, receive a generous cash gift. But when a worthy virgin can't be found, Lady Billows and her cronies decide to instead honor a "May King," and their choice is the opera's title character. Albert (a fine, nuanced turn by fast-rising young tenor Alek Shrader) is the hapless, insecure son of the local grocer, who keeps her son virtually locked up in her store. Albert's only friend is his co-worker Sid, played here by handsome baritone Liam Bonner. Sid is bound and determined to help Albert come out, so to speak, and Sid seizes on Albert's May Day coronation as the perfect opportunity to do so with the assistance of his girlfriend Nancy (the lovely Daniela Mack) and a flask of rum.


Britten's score for Albert Herring is fairly subdued, and some occasional low-volume levels opening night on the part of the James Conlon-conducted orchestra as well as a couple of singers made it sound even more so. It features a number of excellent quartets and quintets that were performed with gusto, however. Act 3 goes on a bit long with its intentionally-excessive lamentations over Albert's disappearance and presumed death, but it is largely redeemed by the triumphal finale in which Albert's new, decidedly less-virtuous lease on life is revealed.

Britten based Albert Herring on Le Rosier de Madame Husson, a short story by French satirist Guy de Maupassant (with the text translated by Eric Crozier). The resultant opera illustrates well how easily the self-serving intentions of the sanctimonious can backfire on them, a lesson those presently vying for the Republican presidential nomination could stand to learn. While watching and listening to Albert's plight as the untarnished, unwilling puppet of socially-conservative forces, I couldn't help but think of how Santorum, Gingrich and Romney is each striving to position himself as the "perfect" candidate by denouncing ad nauseam what they consider immoral. Naturally, homosexuality is one of their frequent targets. There are, appropriately, some subtle nods to gay viewers/listeners in Albert Herring; it is a Britten work, after all. These are evident in the concern Sid has for Albert and a bit of a love triangle that develops between Albert, Nancy and Sid by the end.


LA Opera's production is well-directed by Scotsman Paul Curran (who was wearing a flattering kilt opening night) and entertainingly designed by Kevin Knight. Between the infrequency with which Albert Herring is mounted and the helpful commentary I believe it provides on our nation's current political spectacle, it shouldn't be missed.

For more information or to purchase tickets, please LA Opera's website.

Reverend's Rating: B+

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

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