The virginal King of May
A forceful young woman in tweed clomps across the stage and climbs onto a platform above rows of white wood file cabinets. From her exalted perch above stage and audience she surveys th
e surrounding territory through a telescope: she is Florence (Nicole Birkland), Lady Billows’ eyes and ears on the moral behavior of the village’s young women. Within moments, the lady is calling her, “Florence!” Her high-pitched tones demand attention, and Florence hurries down to escort her mistress onstage. The chamber orchestra breaks into a scurrying, hectic sound like the bustle of market day.
Lady Billows (Kate Crist) is a cross between the late Queen Mother and Dr. Strangelove: decked out in forties outfits (including unbelievable hats) and nestled into a wheelchair from which she flings her commanding black-leather-glove-encased hands. A quartet of village worthies parades on stage—the mayor (Tyler Nelson), the music teacher (Ellen Wieser), the vicar (Eugene Chan) (with an eye on the teacher), and the police chief (Benjamin LeClair)—each come to sustain Lady Billow’s memory of a Victorian childhood of invincible purity by selecting a worthy Queen of the May.
None of the village girls are up to snuff though, but … if the lady would consider a “King” of the May? No one can fault Albert Herring, the greengrocer’s boy who, pickled by his upright and repressive mother and salted by his own timidity, has never done anything reprehensible in his life except fail to collect tuppence for the apples the naughty local children steal.
Done. And Albert, dressed in white suit with a crown of flowers around the brim of his boater, becomes May King and winner of the extraordinary sum of 25 quid. It only takes the machinations of his more worldly pal, Sid, who spikes Albert’s lemonade at the May Day festival, to transform Herring into Albert ’erring.
A breath of fresh airs
So many good things can be said about the Merola Opera Program’s summer operas that it’s hard to know where to begin. Besides the singers, at the top of my list is the selection of operas. Along with the more charming traditional operas, the program has presented one contemporary or 20th-century opera for the past three summers. These have been in English, witty as well as comic, lively and as tight-fitting as Lady Billows’ gloves to the formidable talents of its young singers.
Benjamin Britten’s coming-of-age opera, Albert Herring, is theatrically endearing and wonderful musically, veering from overtly comic touches—the harp’s emphatic chords underlining Lady Billows’ pronouncements, the “slide-whistle” echoing Sid’s covert romantic gesticulations—to interludes of lyric beauty and tenderness, including the flirtation of Sid (baritone Darren Perry) and Nancy (mezzo Renée Tatum) and Albert’s second act aria, when, accompanied by solo woodwinds, he contemplates the failings of his modest personality. New Zealand–born tenor James Benjamin Rodgers portrays confused innocence with perfect comic timing and modesty with kindheartedness, capping his excellent voice and musicality with equally fine acting.
Britten’s music is challenging to sing, full of shifting rhythms and intricate counterpoint. The third act nine-part threnody is lush with variable combinations at the heart of which lies an underlying repeating harmonic phrase over which each solo voice rides consecutively in lament until all the voices gather into close harmony. Stunning and definitely worthy of this ensemble of exceptional singers, who were supported by an excellent chamber ensemble of SF Opera orchestra members under the direction of Mark Morash.
Blessedly but as is standard, the production team was top-notch. With sly and carefully detailed directing by Peter Kazaras, wonderful costumes (placed in the time of the opera’s premiere, late 1940s, rather than the 1900s indicated in the libretto) by Wendy Lynn, and all-white sets—not bearing any of the high art fussiness suggested by the concept—by Donald Eastman that were easily transformed from scene to scene.
Extra praise goes to the three young actor-singers—Keltie Morash, Laura Corina Sanders, and Jack Gorlin—who fulfilled their parts as the bratty adolescents with exquisite aplomb and joy.
A version of this article first appeared in the Piedmont Post