Updating Albert Without Changing A Word

Welcome rarities by Britten and Delibes

Gotham Opera filled a need in New York’s current repertory by offering Benjamin Britten’s comedy “Albert Herring” in an entertaining if sometimes manic production by David Schweitzer at Harry de Jur Playhouse at the Lower East Side’s Henry Street Settlement. City Opera staged “Herring” in the 1970’s, but it’s been a long drought. I caught the show the afternoon of the blizzard (February 12), when enterprising artistic director Neal Goren announced that all participants except the timpanist had made it in—the valiant percussionist did double duty. Goren in the (small) pit obtained very fine playing and the opera was strongly cast, as ever with Gotham.

Schweitzer moved forward 50 years the Edwardian story of an English village choosing a “May King”—the virginal shop boy Albert—when no local girl is deemed suitably virtuous, without changing a word. This worked very well, the only anachronisms being an “Ex-CUSE me” inflected with television irony and a flash Polaroid (!) The presiding local grandee, Lady Billows, was styled by David Zinn as Cruella DeVille and played to the hilt by Karen Huffstodt, game and daffily amusing, though her “Other Side of Midnight” soprano sounded as if she had sung her entire vast repertory the evening before. Huffstodt might undertake with profit the stepmother role in “Lizzie Borden.”

High soprano Jeanine Thames—slated for Stephen Hartke’s “The Greatest Good” at Glimmerglass this summer—was the very best among the singers, accurate and sweet of voice and winning in her characterization of Miss Wordsworth, the head teacher. As Sid and Nancy, the straight couple whose sexually knowing relationship intrigues Albert, and who fuel his rebellion via pouring rum in his lemonade, Timothy Kuhn and Leah Wool were lively onstage and vocally fresh and apt. Schweitzer’s direction did not leave entirely buried the sense that it is Sid, rather than Nancy, who really floats Albert’s boat, which seems apt enough.

I would have toned down the facial reactions of Matt Morgan, who—in Harold Lloyd glasses—elected, or was asked, to play Albert as a caricature and not a character. Vocally he provided all that was needed, but he was so agitated and broad as to preclude being at all moving, or even sympathetic—which can’t be right. Playing the Mayor, and doing so well, the skilled Met character tenor John Easterlin sometimes seemed intent on upstaging everyone with bits of business and pulled faces. It’s just too small a space for the kind of outsized comic playing that many contemporary artists, steeped in television, seem to favor.

Accents wandered up and down the class structure and map of Great Britain—the otherwise excellent and trenchantly amusing Elizabeth Grohowski as Lady Billows’ sensible-shoed housekeeper Florence Pike kept sounding Cockney vowels, which can’t be right—and across the Irish Sea, in the case of Barbara Dever’s strongly voiced Mrs. Herring.

Michael Zegarski’s fine vicar and Eric Jordan’s solidly voiced policeman contributed deftly. Zinn’s costumes and Riccardo Hernandez’s bright pink-based set a jaunty tone that disturbed some, but not me—I see nothing to be nostalgic for in Edwardian village life.

James Jorden already covered Angela Gheorghiu’s much-trumpeted “Traviata.” Her cover, Mary Dunleavy, won a deserved standing ovation for a scheduled take-over February 23. Dunleavy paid attention to every line and musical detail; always fully audible, and yes, she did pull an E-flat out of her hat as Act One ended—not the breathtakingly easy one she showed off in early Violettas in Hartford a decade ago—but in compensation the bottom of her fine voice has filled in appreciably. Her tone is usually at its most beautiful in long, soft cantilena like “Dite alla giovane”—during which one could have heard a pin drop—but she phrased and delivered a memorable “Amami, Alfredo” with surprising power. Physically she approached the ideal—sexy, vulnerable, and credibly French and a consumptive—and looked great next to the great-looking Jonas Kaufmann, in very fluent voice. Congratulations are in order.

Léo Delibes’ endearing “Lakmé” came to Carnegie Hall February 26 thanks to Opera Orchestra of New York. Most people don’t realize how much there is to enjoy in this score beyond the Bell Song and the Flower Duet familiar from “The Hunger” and British Airways commercials. One cannot say that Eve Queler conducted with much sensitivity or style; she rushed her leading lady unforgivably at the Bell Song’s climax, and she plainly has little concern for sung French in auditioning singers. Yet she gets points for doing “Lakmé” at all, and for hiring two excellent young singers as the romantic leads and director Ira Siff to give the evening some drama.

Cuban soprano Eglise Gutierrez’ growing, beautiful instrument, sovereign musicality, and terrific staccati made for an excellent Lakmé, sung with ravishing sound and considerable feeling, even if her French remains indistinct. That of Yegishe Manuchuryan was distinctly awful, an odd failing in an otherwise stylish tenor whose dynamically agile voice suits Gallic music so well; his third act in particular was very impressive nonetheless. James Morris’ score-bound, poorly sung Nikalantha contributed absolutely nothing of value beyond subscriber name recognition. In supporting roles, the strongest work came from the ever-stylish Daniel Mobbs’ beautifully voiced Frédéric—linguistically the evening’s hero—soprano Ellie Dehn’s fresh, musical Ellen, and Gastone Rivera’s alertly phrased Hadji.

David Shengold (shengold@yahoo.com) writes about opera for many venues.

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