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May 4, 2009

Opera Vivente offers appealing production of Britten's 'Albert Herring'

Opera Vivente Albert HerringOpera Vivente is closing its season this week with a nimble, engaging production of Benjamin Britten's comic gem, Albert Herring, one of the strongest productions I've seen from the company.

For those who know Britten only by his high-drama masterpieces, such as Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, the lighthearted, yet pointed, Albert Herring is well worth knowing. The plot is deceptively simple: In the spring of 1900, efforts by the upstanding social rulers of an English town to find a May Queen are stymied by the less-than-pure state of the female candidates. Attention turns to a meek, mother-dominated shopkeeper, who reluctantly accepts the honor of being named the first May King. But things go awry when Albert's buddies decide he needs to spread his wings a bit.

Eric Crozier's witty, satirical libretto is matched with some of Britten's cleverest music, where practically every melodic fragment, harmonic shift and instrumental color has something significant to say.

The opening night performance Friday in the hall of Emmanuel Episcopal Church did have a serious flaw ...

-- mushy articulation by most of the singers, preventing the colorful dialog from fully registering. But that liability proved tolerable in light of so many virtues, starting with the remarkably thorough staging by Eric Gibson, artistic director of Light Opera Oklahoma (Herring is a rare production not guided by Opera Vivente general director John Bowen). Gibson has ensured that every character registers multi-dimensionally, and that the whole ensemble interacts deftly. There's a lot of visual detail, a lot of charm at work, all aided by Mary Bova's stylish costumes and the economical, yet nicely evocative, set by Thom Bumblauskas.

Led with a secure grasp by JoAnn Kulesza, the orchestra coped quite decently on Friday with the considerable challenges of the score; the winds and brass were especially telling in the Act 2 Interlude. The weight of the orchestral sound no doubt sometimes cut into the ability of the cast to project words (every Vivente outing loses something acoustically from the absence of a pit), but I still think this was mostly just another example of the bad habit many American singers have of failing to enunciate their own language cleanly. 

Adam Caughey, in the title role, was one of the more successful in the articulation department. The tenor's voice proved fairly strong and he put a good deal of nuance in his phrasing; his assured acting caught Albert's endearingly naive quality. Christopher Herbert, as Albert's buddy Sid, took top marks for clarity of text. The baritone also produced a consistently warm sound, phrased colorfully and used his natural theatrical skills to great advantage.

Jennifer Root bellowed powerfully in a knowing portrayal of the pretentious Lady Billows, but a tonal harshness took a toll. Jessica Renfro (Nancy), Leah Inger (Miss Wordsworth), Dina Martire (Florence Pike), Will Heim (Vicar), James Bailey (Mayor), Jennifer Blades (Mrs. Herring) and Jeffrey Tarr (Police Superintendent) sang dynamically, if not always with tonal smoothness, and were fully into their characters. The roles of the three children were filled spiritedly by Austin Nikirk, Veronica Page and Collin Power.

Remaining performances are Thursday and Saturday.

Next season, Opera Vivente plans productions of Mozart's The Magic Flute and Rossini's Cinderella, as well as Debussy's Pelleas and Melisande, which the company tackled a few seasons ago using substantially reduced orchestration.  


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:08 PM | | Comments (1)


I heartily concur that this was a strong production. I saw the second performance and was most impressed with conducting and orchestral playing. There is a particularly beautiful set of passages between a bass clarinet and alto flute that were as musically played as anything I have ever heard.

Regarding the enunciation problem, I think a good portion of this comes from an unfortunate American academic approach to vocal teaching. It is common practice to focus tonal production on classic Italian vowel sounds, identify two or three that fall naturally in the voice and then use those to approach the note. This false vowel is then elided into the written vowel sound. So the diphthong "ah-ee" which would normally be used for the vowel sound in the world "light" now might be sung "oh-ah-ee" yielding to the listener - "loight".

The listener now has to use the context of the lyric to understand what word was meant. In rapid passages, this is next to impossible without a libretto.

Yet most singers and directors will view any comment about enunciation as referring to poor beginning or ending consonants. Again this is because of current academic practice where tone is everything.

The reason why Christopher Herbert was so successful in the role of Sid is because he did not try to sing the role using this perfect tone "operatic" technique, but instead used his musical comedy technique. He supported the voice well, but focused on intelligibility rather than tonal production. By not using false vowel sounds, he was understood clearly and his natural gifts of a warm tone were still on ample display.

Caughey and Renfro both excelled similarly. In fact, the majority of the cast was very intelligible. Unfortunately two singers were so extreme in their vowel substitution that it was impossible to ever understand their words and both characters were unfortunately pivotal to the wittiness of the libretto coming across.

Still I would heartily recommend this production to everyone. Bravo to Opera Vivente for giving Baltimore a substantial production of high quality.

Thanks for your illuminating analysis.TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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