Chicago Opera Theater

at the Athenaeum Theatre

March 29 and April 1, 2, 7, 9, 12, and 15

The average operagoer often considers Benjamin Britten a one-opera composer. Peter Grimes is his operatic masterpiece, but there are a good dozen Britten operas that are neglected.

The reason for this neglect is difficult to determine, because when Britten operas are presented, they find both a wide audience and critical acclaim. Their subjects are more or less contemporary, the music is well crafted, and of course the works are written in English. Granted, the music is terribly difficult for singers to learn and perform; and true, one rarely finds the kind of tunes in Britten to take home in a doggy bag. (If catchiness is the criterion for popularity, perhaps the most enduring composer of 20th-century British opera will be Andrew Lloyd Webber.)

It was a decade ago that Chicago Opera Theater gave Chicago its first hearing of Albert Herring, revealing it for the comic gem that it can be when placed in capable artistic hands. Two seasons ago, COT gave us another Britten premiere, his haunting adaptation of The Turn of the Screw. As part of COT’s 15th-anniversary season, Albert Herring returns to Chicago, much to the delight of COT audiences.

It is possible to see the opera on one level as a reflection of Britten’s fascination with homosexuality–a fascination that permeates his operas and vocal works, most of which were written for his longtime lover, tenor Peter Pears. Perhaps Britten couldn’t resist the short story by Guy de Maupassant on which Albert Herring is based, because it gave him the opportunity to literally crown Pears as Queen of the May.

On another level, the opera brings to a head the conflict between a vulnerable, innocent young man searching for an identity and a turn-of-the-century morality that mistakes his innocence for a canonization of its values. Young Albert, the town grocer, must endure the ultimate humiliation–public coronation as King of the May after some priggish townsfolk determine that no young girl is virtuous enough for the honor. At the mention of one candidate’s name, one of the townsfolk sings: “Fine, except she went for a go-cart ride with a cousin one Sunday–in Lent.” All are suitably shocked.

Feeling sorry for Albert, coworker Sid and his girlfriend arrange to spike Albert’s lemonade at the May Day picnic in his honor, just to “loosen him up a bit.” In the end, Albert is found wanting after all: he uses his coronation prize money to go for a wild, drunken night on the town and declares his “coming of age” to the horrified townsfolk, who had given him up for dead when he disappeared. (Although the original story was set in Normandy, Britten moved the action to his own home ground, East Suffolk in England, and strove to capture much of its local color.)

Most of the singing in COT’s present production was very good, but the acting was superb. Unfortunately tenor Richard Fracker’s singing as Herring was often difficult to understand, as was Judith Erickson’s gravelly soprano as his mother, and not surprisingly, the scenes between them were the production’s weakest. But Fracker’s priceless expressions were worth a thousand words.

As Sid, bass Richard Rebilas was quite effective, in good voice and always understandable; as his girlfriend, Nancy, soprano Julia Parks was also understandable, though to a lesser degree. The townspeople, including Karen Brunssen as Florence, Diane Ragains as the schoolteacher Miss Wordsworth, Philip Kraus as the vicar, Jerome Padorr as the mayor, and Carl Glaum as the police superintendent, were all superb. (Baritone Glaum kept an impressive straight face in the third act when he uttered the line: “Give me a clear-cut murder with a corpse.”) But the person who stole the show was unquestionably soprano Gail Tremitiere, as the patroness Lady Billows, who played this part to great effect, in grand Wagnerian fashion a la Anna Russell. Her role has some of the most difficult singing in the opera, yet Tremitiere always rose (in one case to a high B-flat) to the occasion.

The sets and costumes were impressive. But I found David Gately’s staging unimaginative and unnecessarily stilted. I can understand having the cast stand still for the large ensembles, but there was also little movement during the rest of the opera.

Conductor and pianist Hal France did a superb job, moving the music along at a reasonable pace. Despite the score’s tremendous difficulty, France kept things together most impressively. Only at the beginning of the third act was there an obvious glitch, when the snare drum got slightly ahead of the orchestra.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.