In review: Albert Herring at UofT Opera
So much celebration happened on Thursday night. Director Joel Ivany celebrated the opening night of his production of Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring in the MacMillan theatre at the University of Toronto. UofT celebrated the 50th anniversary of its first opera performance in 1964: Albert Herring. And of course, everyone celebrated Albert the Good.
I was able to catch the opening night performance of Albert Herring at the University of Toronto, and I'm so glad I did. Thursday night's cast was well-balanced, an important element when presenting what's really an ensemble piece; Herring is a little bit about everyone. Kudos go to Joel Ivany for showing characters that are specific and recognizable; we began to feel as though we had known them for years.
Tenor Jan Nato starred as Albert, looking just the part with his small stature, nervous posture, and a hint of a lisp. He showed strong acting skills, giving Albert plenty of chances to earn the audience's sympathy (or pity, perhaps). As he sat at the table at the Mayday Celebration, the juxtaposition of his flowery and ribbony crown next to his sour and emasculated face was a great moment of comedy. Jan also showed that he's got quite the voice to display; although his sound is still young, he found ease and organicism in what can be a difficult score. He was smart about prioritizing text (it was clear!) and character in his singing, but let us hear his lyricism in the few such moments Britten writes for Albert.
Bass-baritone Iain MacNeil was solid as Sid, Albert's bad-influence friend. Based on what I've heard from Iain in the past, Sid is a fairly high role for him; but he did well with it, and maintained all the spontaneity the role demands. He looked and acted the part without effort, and he certainly stood out among the cast as a singer with real stage presence and awareness. I'm curious to hear him as he joins the COC Ensemble Studio for the 2014/15 season, hopefully in roles he'll find a bit more comfortable.
In the role of Nancy was mezzo-soprano Melissa Peiou. She sang well, but I was left feeling unfulfilled by her character, and I had real trouble understanding her. The role is tricky one in which to establish specificity of character, but I felt that Joel Ivany gave her the tools, and Melissa could have been a "bigger" presence onstage.
Christina Bell was delightfully shrill and self-important as Lady Billows. Christina sang with plenty of power, but I sensed a tendency for her to hold back her sound. The role of Lady Billows is a big, ridiculous, vocal hyperbole, and it almost seemed as though Christina didn't quite grasp why Britten's writing is so funny. I'm curious to hear her sing other repertoire, since I'm not convinced I got a good slice of her skills in this particular role.
Laurelle Jade was hilariously uppity and self-righteous as Lady Billows' housekeeper, Florence Pike. This role was pretty low for her, and she spent most of the night singing wordy, patter-like lines; she had plenty of tongue-twisting text to deliver, and she pulled it off with poise and plenty of room for character. I've recently gotten to know Laurelle as a singer, and I know that this role doesn't show her real vocal skill. But she took the opportunity to show off her strong acting chops; one of my comic highlights was watching her at the Mayday Celebration, as she fretted and fidgeted, waiting for Albert to make his speech.
Another highlight was Sonya Gosse as Albert's mum, Mrs. Herring. Sonya is an alumna of the UofT Opera program; it was fitting to have her as a part of this production of Albert Herring, and it helped that she was fantastic in the role. She was sufficiently overbearing and attention-hogging without crossing the line of caricature, and I loved watching her throughout the opera's final scene as she "grieved" for her lost son. Sonya is a regular member of the COC Chorus, and it was there that I got to know Sonya a bit over the years; it was really great for me to see her in a role that showcased her skills so well.
I thought the quartet of loveable/hatable members of the Mayday committee were some of the most nuanced, specifically presented characters in this production. Adanya Dunn was spectacular as Miss Wordsworth; she gave what I thought was the best singing of the night, and she was just so teachery. Bird-like and constantly multi-tasking, she made my night when she took back the pie she'd brought for Albert's grieving mother in the final scene. Charles Sy sang with a warm and endearing voice as Mr. Upfold, the mayor. His tenor sound is still young, but I could hear a real instrument in there, _and I got his text__. I'm excited to hear him over the next few years as he takes on Mozart and Donizetti. As Mr. Gedge, the vicar, there was something compelling about Ryan Downey. He wasn't the strongest singer onstage, but his intention and character were always clear. I liked Dylan Wright as Superintendent Budd; he reminded me of Tom Corbeil as Swallow in the COC's 2013 production of Peter Grimes._
The production was, I thought, exactly what it needed to be. Joel and his team updated the setting to the early 1960s, which didn't offend me. The set and costumes, by designer Camellia Koo, was perfectly British-bland with the right amount of redundant Mayday fluff. With the use of a revolving set (and lighting by Fred Perruzza), we were taken from Lady Billows' sitting room to the Herring's grocery store to the site of the fated Mayday feast. The revolving set did wonders for presenting to the audience a glimpse of action that happened between acts, not written out by Britten for us to see. I won't say the revolving part was crucial, but it really did help with the necessary divisions of time and location.
The orchestra played admirably under the baton of conductor Leslie Dala, and the singers fared well among Britten's wacky rhythms and questionable chords; kudos to Andrea Grant for musical preparation and to Jason Nedecky for keeping on that cast about clear English diction.
Albert Herring plays at the MacMillan Theatre tonight at 7:30pm, and tomorrow afternoon at 2:30pm. For tickets, click here.