They could hardly be more different. The Poulenc piece, 1,000 percent Gallic, puts its wildly surrealistic Apollinaire text through gender-bending escapades that out-Offenbach Offenbach. But wait. Britten’s opera, 1,000 percent British, gender-bends, too, with a May King substituting for the Queen of the May, and a score that plays around with Offenbach’s English counterparts, Gilbert and Sullivan. Both, finally, have a message: For Poulenc, it’s, “Hey, postwar-Français, go make babies!” and, for Britten, it’s, “Hey, sourpuss Brits, get a life!”
Certainly that’s a motto for the SFO’s exuberant, must-see production: Drink life to the dregs, hangovers be damned. Britten had decried provincial intolerance two years earlier in his tragic Peter Grimes—in which an outsider is destroyed by the hypocrisies of small-minded society. He returned again and again to this theme in his later operas. Britten—pacifist in a war-mongering society, not-very-closeted homosexual in an aggressively heterosexual world—now looks like a precursor of England’s angry young men.
But in Albert Herring, his anger, churning beneath the surface, is tempered by the sweetness and light of a village immorality play. Britten mocks the staunch, institutional forces of the aristocracy, family, church and state. He celebrates the joys of hilarious misrule. Falstaff lurks in the wings. No wonder that when the opera premiered at Glyndebourne—a then-bastion of upper-middle-class cultural conservatism—its founding father John Christie reportedly sniffed, “You know, this is not really our sort of thing.”
It is, however, very much the SFO’s cuppa, a boisterous ensemble piece, brimming with vitality, and one of the company’s most satisfying, successful ventures into comedy since I don’t know when. Start with Eric Crozier’s witty libretto, packed with allusions to Shakespeare, Andrew Marvell and even TS Eliot. Add Britten’s brilliant, sly score: Lohengrin and Tristan turn up, along with G & S and scads of others.
But all would be for nought without Sir Andrew Davis conducting, con brio assoluto, his 13-piece band, and Paul Curran directing, with infinite gusto, his 13-member cast. Get ready—I can’t leave any marvelous member out: Christine Brewer as the imperious Lady Billows; Jill Grove as her slatternly housekeeper; Celena Shafer as the mousy Miss Wordsworth; the uptight vicar, Jonathan Michie; Mark Schowalter is the officious mayor; Joshua Hopkins sings good old Sid with Kate Lindsey as his fancy, Nancy; beloved SFO veteran Judith Christin returns as Albert’s gharstly mum; Erin Sanzero, Jamie-Rose Guarrine and Richard Schmidt are obnoxious kids; and Alek Shrader makes his SFO debut as Albert.
Whew. What a crew. And what a debut. When Shrader gets going, watch out. He’s got the voice—flexible and fine—the uninhibited stage presence, the hunky looks and all the moves that make his Albert, especially when prepped by rum and s–x, a thing of beauty and a joy for nearly three happy hours in The Crosby Theatre. Kevin Knight’s clever set and eye-filling costumes plus Rick Fisher’s lighting contribute to this fête for the senses.
But pardon a personal anecdote. In the early ’80s, I was sitting in the stalls circle of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, just before the curtain of, probably, Parsifal. An elderly, upright gentleman was moving briskly down the aisle to his seat. A murmur filled the theater: Peter, Sir Peter, Peter Pears. Yes, Britten’s partner, a national icon, the tenor who created Grimes, Albert, Vere, Quint, Aschenbach.
Maybe, just maybe, might that be Shrader in 50 years?