Britten fest gets off to vivacious, witty start

REVIEW

What: Pacific Opera Victoria: Albert Herring, by Benjamin Britten, directed by Glynis Leyshon, conducted by Leslie Dala.

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When/where: Feb. 7, 9, and 15, 8 p.m.; Feb. 17, 2:30 p.m.; pre-performance lectures at 7 p.m. (1:30 p.m. on Feb. 17); Royal Theatre (805 Broughton St.).

Tickets: $37.50-$130, student rush tickets $15, 45 minutes prior to each performance, subject to availability. Call 250-385-0222 or 250-386-6121; online at rmts.bc.ca; in person at POV (Suite 500, 1815 Blanshard St.) or the Royal box office.

 

On Thursday evening, Pacific Opera Victoria launched a month-long Britten Festival honouring the centenary of the composer’s birth, with a sparkling and nuanced production of his comedy Albert Herring — a co-production with Vancouver Opera, which will mount it next season.

Based on a story by Maupassant, Albert Herring is set in a small (imaginary) town in Britten’s native East Suffolk. The strait-laced town leaders, unable to find one girl virtuous enough to be their May Queen, elect instead a May King — the title character, a sweet, shy, chaste mama’s boy. But Albert, who longs to break free of his virtue, is humiliated by the honour, and rebels in a night of drinking and fighting (“and worse”), scandalizing the town.

Tenor Lawrence Wiliford, a highly expressive lyric tenor with considerable experience singing Britten, is both funny and touching as Albert in his many moods (submissive, yearning, frustrated, defiant, drunk, liberated), and his big arias are triumphs of vocal virtuosity, characterization and musical sensitivity.

Albert excepted, this opera is conspicuously light on set pieces for solo voices, however. It mostly comprises heterogeneous ensembles of varying density drawn from a fund of 10 principal characters. (There are supernumeraries appearing as townspeople and dancers, but there is no chorus, as such.) These ensembles are splendidly effective, thanks to flawless casting of the smaller principal roles — mayor, vicar, police superintendant, schoolteacher, Albert’s mother — and to some very engaging and professional work by the three voice students in the children’s roles.

Soprano Sally Dibblee is perfectly cast as the autocratic Lady Bellows. A force to reckon with as Queen Elizabeth I in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda last season, Dibblee here marshals her vocal virtuosity and power and her commanding stage presence to great comic effect, creating a flamboyant portrait of a much-put-upon virago — the town’s self-appointed queen. Mezzo-soprano Susan Platts, another fine comedienne, provides superb support as Florence Pike, Milady’s housekeeper and the town’s moral accountant.

Nancy and Sid, whose romance is both joshing and tender, come across as the most full-blooded, genuinely human characters here. Soprano Stephanie Marshall’s Nancy is warm and kindly but also spunky, baritone Phillip Addis’s Sid a little roguish but charming and brimming with life; the appealing voices of these two singers pay particular dividends in their love duets.

Director Glynis Leyshon has updated the setting from 1900 to 1950 (three years after Albert Herring was first performed). The plot and characters fit comfortably into the later era; many references in the libretto, and the Victorian allusions in Britten’s score, do not. Still, the tone always feels right in this production. It is very funny, sometimes delightfully absurd, but Leyshon has also mined the many interesting undercurrents — poignancy, tension, rage, pathos, hypocrisy, sensuality — in this frequently edgy comedy.

Admittedly, the opera is not quite as concise and fleet-footed as a comedy should be — several sequences seem belaboured. But the fault is Britten’s, and, fortunately, energy and imagination never flag in Leyshon’s staging. (The three acts are played with one intermission.)

Albert Herring is a chamber opera, featuring just 12 instrumentalists plus a pianist, who plays a kind of basso continuo in recitative-like passages. Far from seeming slight, however, this opera truly fits the stage, pit, and house of the Royal Theatre — and those dozen instruments can make a considerable racket when required to do so. Under the baton of Leslie Dala, Vancouver Opera’s associate conductor and chorus master, making his POV debut, Britten’s colourful and witty and fussily detailed score is brought vividly to life by the cream of the Victoria Symphony.

Green predominates in Patrick Clark’s set, which includes an opulent hedges-and-flowers backdrop and a lovely rendering of Herring’s Green Grocery. His vision of small-town English life — Arcadian but also slightly tongue-in-cheek — is entirely appropriate to this tale and this production.

kevinbazzana@shaw.ca

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