Composer: Benjamin Britten
Conductor: Michael Spierman
Director: Rod Gomez
Albert Herring: Chad Kranak
Lady Billows: Leslie Swanson
Mrs. Herring: Helena Brown
Florence Pike: Julie De Vaere
Sid: Stan Lacy
Nancy: Amy Maude Helfer
Miss Wordworth: Danielle Buonaiuto
Mr. Gedge: Andrew Oakden
Mr. Upfold: Joseph Michael Brent
Superintendent Budd: C. David Morrow
As winter is tightening its freezing grip over New York City, I could not find a better way to combat the season's nascent blues than with an unexpected but most welcome pick-me-up from the Bronx Opera Company and their new production of Albert Herring. Freely based on Guy de Maupassant's Le rosier de Madame Husson, Benjamin Britten's one and only comedy is a chamber opera that preserves the novella's basic narrative and light-hearted mood, but transplants the action to the composer's native Suffolk area, which is, after all, fair enough.
So on Saturday night, I half-reluctantly half-excitedly left my warm and cozy apartment to go into the cold and dark night, crossed the Park to the other side and took my seat in Hunter College's nicely proportioned Kaye Playhouse among a sparse but dedicated crowd.
Benjamin Britten is not typically associated with comedy, but who could blame him for wanting to lighten up after the unquestionably tragic Rape of Lucretia? Still faithful to his signature themes of the social outcast's place in society and the loss of innocence, this time he used the story of a virtuous simpleton who against his will becomes King of May, a distinction that, with a little help from some secretly spiked lemonade, provides him with the desire and, even more importantly, the means to sow his wild oats. Oh boy.
On Saturday night, the title role was more than aptly filled by tenor Chad Kranak, who was an endearingly innocent young lad on the cusp of his journey into adulthood. With a round face as effortlessly expressive as his engaging singing, he was the reluctant leading man everybody ended up rooting for. His newly elated look, carefree attitude and soiled virginal suit after his first wild night on the town delightfully demonstrated in one fell swoop that all boys will eventually be boys.
The rest of the cast was equally strong, starting with mezzo-soprano Leslie Swanson, whose commanding presence and powerful voice immediately asserted her authority over the proceedings as the aging but still ruling town matriarch. As her housekeeper Florence Pike, mezzo-soprano Julie De Vaere readily stood on her own vocally and dramatically.
Mezzo-soprano Helena Brown was another mighty woman to contend with as Mrs. Herring, Albert's tough but loving mother. As fiercely smothering as can be when it came to raising her son, she became poignantly inconsolable when she thought she had lost him.
The couple of young lovers was downright appealing. Baritone Stan Lacy was a handsome Sid, the hot-blooded bon vivant who decided to become the instigator of Albert's emancipation, and mezzo-soprano Amy Maude Helfer was a lovely Nancy, his perky and good-hearted partner in pranks.
The remaining of the town's people was a lively crew that included soprano Danielle Buonaiuto as the uptight school teacher Miss Wordworth, baritone Andrew Oakden as the jovial vicar Mr. Gedge, bass-baritone C. David Morrow as the scruffy superintendent Budd and tenor Joseph Michael Brent as the self-important mayor Mr. Upfold.
All these truly capable singers, dressed in elaborate costumes and evolving in well designed sets, were definitely having a communicative good time, but all their good will could not hide the fact that the story was only moderately funny and somewhat over-extended. Additionally, the absence of surtitles made it sometimes difficult to follow exactly what was going on ‒ Yes, the opera was in English, but it was sung English ‒ and by default resulted in the occasional loss of meaningful nuances.
Unlike the charming but dated plot, the score was highly complex and resolutely modern, bristling with attractive colors, sparking witticisms and clever inventions. It gave each singer a fair chance to create their own eccentric character and featured a few riveting ensemble numbers such as the threnody of Act 3. The 12-piece Bronx Opera Orchestra was literally instrumental in keeping the show going with plenty of vivacity under the indefatigable baton of Michael Spierman.
All the musical talent involved was for sure a major asset to this production and significantly contributed to turning what could easily be not much more than a minor curiosity into a genuinely pleasant night at the opera.