“Albert Herring”

The cast of Chicago Opera Theater’s “Albert Herring” at the Athenaeum Center.

Benjamin Britten’s opera “Albert Herring” premiered in June of 1947. The composer’s comic piece, with libretto by Eric Crozier, was the perfect balm for the early, gloomy years following WWII. In the piece, Britten both celebrates and exposes British affectations and idiosyncrasies, the class system, and even adds a small dollop of gender politics.

Chicago Opera Theater (COT) has mounted a new production of “Albert Herring” which opened on Thursday, Jan. 26 at the Athenaeum Center for Thought and Culture (previously the Athenaeum Theater) and ran for only three performances over consecutive days. It was a joyful romp through a charming village of stock characters whose actions result in the shy and introverted Albert Herring finally taking control of his life in a way that shocks (or in at least one cases, amuses) his neighbors.

COT assembled a marvelous cast for this chamber opera that offers nearly every character a moment in the spotlight. Finnish-American Miles Mykkanen embodied the title character’s quiet introversion with quiet, nervous gestures and at times an almost whimpering sadness. He is a comic delight when he attends the May Day festival in his absurd white ensemble, and his drunken state is believable without delving into absurdity. An ordinary guy breaks out of his routine and finds new purpose and clarity: that’s an ending that’s both rather English and fully satisfying.

Whitney Morrison was a hoot as Lady Billows, the elderly matron who rules the village. Britten sometimes gives her music that hoots and hollers, and Morrison can offer carefully prepared comic sound rather like P.G. Wodehouse’s description of Bertie Wooster’s most vexing relatives: “when Aunt is calling Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps.” But she also has gorgeous tone, which shines and sparkles when her character isn’t entirely ornery.

Justin Berkowitz sported an enormous handlebar mustache as the mayor and had just the right oiliness for a politician. As the vicar, Bill McMurray offered his contributions in a detached, intellectual manner and wore his vestments with panache. Teresa Castillo was a fluttering school teacher with a delightfully light and pleasing soprano. Lady B’s housekeeper Florence was played by Alissa Anderson who added comic flair to simply rushing about. Her rich, low voice was used superbly when condemning the behavior of possible May Queens.

Wilbur Pauley rumbled amusingly as the policeman who has the startling idea of abandoning a May Queen for a May King. Leah Dexter was fantastic in her crucial role of Mrs. Herring, mother to Albert. It is her overbearing manner that has boxed in Albert and this has led to much of his disappointment in life. Vince Wallace as Sid the butcher was suave and winning so that we understood why Nancy, played sweetly by Veena Akama-Makia, was so drawn to him.

Jane Glover led the chamber orchestra with assurance, the music was pert, clear, and transparent and the quirky elements were laid out carefully. There was nothing English about the sets or costumes according to my companion for the evening, an English woman. But this didn’t affect the success of the opera. The costumes were “theater vague past” which means arty clothes that aren’t current. But they really worked. So did some of the hairstyles, notably that of housekeeper Florence, whose locks were always pushed out, as if she were constantly in motion. Lady B. sported a Bride of Frankenstein hairdo and I respected stage director Stephen Sposito for not going any further with that sort of over-the-top humor.

Leaving the Athenaeum I was awash in a sea of smiles. It was a great opera and a wonderful performance.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.