Northwestern Opera Theater presents an admirable “Albert Herring”

Fri May 18, 2012 at 12:28 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Marcus Shields in the title role of Britten’s “Albert Herring,” presented by Northwestern University Opera Theater Thursday night at Cahn Auditoruim. Photo: Christina Walker/Pick-Staiger Concert Hall

The Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University is presenting Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring as its spring opera production. The staging opened Thursday night and is running through Sunday with alternating casts.

Premiered in 1947, Britten’s comedy is a not-so-gentle poke at English middle-class pretensions and moral hypocrisy in a provincial village. Led by the aptly named Lady Billows, the self-appointed guardians of Loxford are in a quandary. With the May Day Festival coming up, it is time to choose a May Queen, yet it seems none of the local maidens are virginal enough to wear the crown.

With no unspotted female candidates available, it is decided to choose a May King instead and the honor will go to Albert Herring—the shy, socially inept grocery clerk who lives with his mother, and of whom there is little doubt of his sexual innocence. Albert is dubious but his mother forces him to accept the title, mainly to get her hands on the 25-pound prize.

At the coronation luncheon, Albert’s friend Sid, the butcher’s assistant, spikes Albert’s lemonade with rum, setting off assorted mayhem with the boy running off to sow his belated wild oats. Albert’s disappearance throws the town into an uproar, and all mourn his apparent death. Ultimately, bedraggled yet triumphant, Albert returns and tells the assembled Loxford burghers of his sinful adventures. His mother and the officials are scandalized but Sid and his girlfriend Nancy congratulate the newly confident Albert on his independence.

The story is slight, but even with Britten’s rapier-like social satire, Albert Herring has a non-saccharine sweetness and timeless message of rising above one’s stifling social environment to assert personal freedom.

The first of two casts offered a respectable performance Thursday night at Cahn Auditorium in Evanston. The student singers inevitably lacked the seasoning and vocal gleam of professionals but the performance gained in strength as the evening progressed.

The principal problem Thursday was the lack of clarity to the words for several cast members. Even with the English text, far too much of the witty dialogue was lost in this highly conversational work, especially in the first act, with no supertitles available.

Marcus Shields was a largely admirable Albert. The young singer didn’t explore the comic side of the dorkish role, yet Shields showed a pleasant tenor voice, albeit sometimes stretched at the top. His Act 2 soliloquy needed more emotional charge, yet Shields rose to the final scene of Albert’s assertion of independence in fine fashion.

As his enabling friend Sid, Conor McDonald showed a strong baritone and rich personality, and Elisa Sutherland was a poised and affecting Nancy.

Kelsey Boesche etched a fine portrait of the petit-bourgeois battle-axe Lady Billows, though her enunciation often needed to be crisper. Katherine McGookey as Pike, Lady Billows’ housekeeper, was imposing in voice and clearly articulated. Emily Spencer as Albert’s mother was efficiently done if rather pallid in characterization.

Of the town worthies, there were two standouts. Ron Mitchell as the Vicar, Mr. Gedge, was excellent, with every word crystal-clear and  singing with a natural warm tone. As the police chief Superintendant Budd, Joseph Hubbard displayed a rich bass and was genuinely funny with his cockney accent and not-too-bright politeness.

Julie Tabash as Miss Wordsworth and Nathan Taylor as Mr. Upfold solidly rounded out the officials. As the children, Harrah Friedlander was  energetic if somewhat over the top as the starstruck Emmie, while Veronique Filloux as the shy Cis and Will Higgins as Harry underplayed effectively.

Conductor Christopher Zemliauskas showed clear sympathy with Britten’s relentlessly witty score and drew worthy playing from  the orchestra, bringing out Britten’s imaginative effects and musical rimshots.

Albert Herring will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday, with a second cast performing Friday and Sunday. 847-467-4000;

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One Response to “Northwestern Opera Theater presents an admirable “Albert Herring””

  1. Posted May 20, 2012 at 1:22 pm by Denise Hubbard

    Wish we could have been there to hear it

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