Despite the demise of Opera Festival of New Jersey, summer opera is not completely dead in Princeton. New Jersey Opera theater, founded in 2002 to offer opera performances to New Jersey audiences, took up residence at Princeton University this past month to present a Summer Vocal Institute. Featuring more than forty young singers from throughout the United States, the company presented three operas within a week's time: Mozart's Don Giovanni, Britten's Albert Herring, and a double bill of Ravel's L'enfant et les Sortileges and Offenbach's comedic Ba-Ta-Clan. Each opera was performed twice in the intimate space of Princeton's Hamilton Murray Theater. Although the ambience of Hamilton Murray Theater is a long way from the elegance of McCarter, there were many good things about this venture to return opera to Princeton in the summer.
The second of these productions, Albert Herring, was composed by Britten in 1947 as the first work for the newly established English Opera Group. This three-act comic opera is a parody of rural English life at the end of the 19th century, and in the score one can also hear musical parodies of Edwardian England as well as the patter of Gilbert & Sullivan.
For this production, New Jersey Opera Theater brought together thirteen young singers, some of whom are clearly beyond the apprentice-type vocal institute. In the small black-box theater environment of Hamilton Murray, these singers needed no amplification to get their voices across, especially since accompaniment was with piano. The first singer seen onstage, Margaret O'Connell as Florence Pike, was initially most impressive for her lightning typing ability in perfect time with the music. The role of Florence Pike was low in the mezzo register at times, but Ms. O'Connell soared into the upper ranges and carried the comic element well. Florence Pike works for Lady Billows, sung by Madeline Abel-Kerns, a singer who is clearly beyond the vocal institute stage and surely has a regional career out there somewhere. Ms. Abel-Kerns' character was formidable, and her rich mezzo commanded the stage and filled the hall.
The four male leads were a bit more diverse in experience and vocal color. As Mayor Upfold, Benamin-Edouard Savoie was the most comedic, with a solid voice. Nathan Resika showed a good lower register as Superintendent Budd, and the characters of Vicar Gedge and Sid were solidly sung by Justin Johnson and Daniel Seigel. Donna Maria Pimental rounded out the quintet of conspirators as Miss Wordsworth. These were diverse voices, and although the ensemble numbers filled the hall well, the individual voices were not always well matched when put together. One combination which always worked was Mr. Seigel and Tracy Kaufman, who played the role of Sid's girlfriend Nancy. These two singers always had good control over the dynamics and drama of the scene, as well as the music.
Jacob Feldman was no doubt selected as Albert Herring for his light, young-sounding voice and innocent demeanor. Although his innocence clearly came across, he was not one of the stronger singers in the cast, especially overshadowed at times by Mr. Seigel and Ms. Kaufman in their scenes together. There is a lot of humor in the score, which Mr. Feldman, as well as the other singers, brought out well.
Three student singers also contributed significantly to the cast. Colleen McDonald is a student at West Morris Mendham High School, Noelle Arteche a student at Union High School, and Christopher Heinze a student at the Horace Mann School and a member of the Philadelphia Boys Choir. Ms. McDonald especially demonstrated a great deal of stage and vocal presence, but all of these students carried their roles well and the opportunity to perform in this type of Institute is invaluable for them. Although this opera was long (more than three hours), there were many good things about New Jersey Opera Theater's first venture into a Summer Vocal Institute in Princeton. Conductor Daniel Beckwith, together with the exceptional pianist Michael Dauphinais, kept the music (some of which perhaps could have been cut to keep the opera shorter) flowing, and Thom Bumblauskas' simple Victorian set designs were effective, although having singers change the scenes on the uncurtained stage gave a slight feel of a summer camp production. The general pace of the evening was a bit slow (with intermissions which were way too long), but New Jersey Opera Theater's first foray into Princeton was full of promise.