Princeton Festival Presents Benjamin Britten Comic Opera
By Nancy Plum
Princeton Festival took on an immense operatic production this past weekend to start the second week of the Festival’s cornucopia of activities. Benjamin Britten’s 1946 comic chamber opera Albert Herring was mammoth not just because of cast size or length but in its complexity of vocal demands and orchestration. The Festival opened Albert Herring Friday night (the opera was repeated Sunday night) to an extremely appreciative audience in the Festival’s performance tent at Morven Museum and Gardens.
Although the storyline of Albert Herring could be as silly as Gilbert and Sullivan at times, this opera required heavy-duty singing. For this production, Princeton Festival assembled a cast of well-trained and experienced singers to handle some very challenging roles. Three standout performers were tenor Joshua Stewart in the title role, soprano Ann Toomey as the upper crust Lady Billows, and mezzo-soprano Melody Wilson as Herring’s mother.
Educated at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, Stewart has been making his mark in the opera world internationally. As the grocer Albert Herring, Stewart was a subtle lead character at first, turning his vocal prowess and full comedic skills loose in the second act dinner scene and third act soliloquy, complemented by animated facial expressions. In his operas, Britten composed rich and complex lead tenor roles, and Stewart met every musical and dramatic challenge.
Soprano Ann Toomey has also had considerable success in the opera world and made an immediate impact on the Festival stage both with her singing and her character’s sufficiently snooty demeanor. With a commanding soprano voice, Toomey lit up over the prospects for the annual May Queen festival, and then proceeded to tear the roof off vocally when things did not go her way. When discussing the May Queen prize, Toomey’s singing was especially elegant and courtly while accompanied by harpist André Tarantiles.
Although her character enters later in the opera, Melody Wilson’s portrayal of Herring’s somewhat greedy mother was forceful and imposing. A rich mezzo voice with an impressive upper range allowed Wilson to be both matronly and overbearing, eventually pushing her son over the edge into debauchery. Bass Eric Delagrange was both animated and decisive as the local Superintendent, and when joined by the other characters comprising the first scene’s committee meeting, the ensemble sound was well-blended and well timed. Adding a sprightly color to the ensemble sound was soprano Leah Brzyski as a local schoolteacher, and counteracting Lady Billows’ stuffy
autocratic nature was Mariana Karpatova singing the dramatic contralto role of housekeeper Florence Pike — the voice of reason within the town. Well rounding out the town council were baritone Jonathan Lasch as the vicar and tenor Shawn Roth portraying the mayor of the town, with all characters portraying farcical Puratinism well.
There were several “village children” in the English town where this opera took place, and the three individuals singing these roles were all experienced and well-trained performers. Alexandra Thomas and Sienna Grinwald-Alves are students at Westminster Choir College, and Grinwald-Alves in particular began her vocal training at a young age. Lewis Jacobson Wasden, singing the role of the third village child, also began performing at a young age with the American Boychoir and is currently a member of the Princeton Boychoir. All three of these performers were animated and on-point with their vocal lines.
A subplot of the opera included a romance between the butcher’s assistant, sung by baritone Billy Huyler; and the bakery worker Nancy, portrayed by Curtis Institute student Hannah Klein. Huyler showed a particularly extensive range of dynamics in his role, with Klein shining in her third act soliloquy of regret.
In Albert Herring, the orchestra is an additional character in itself. Led by Rossen Milanov, the accompanying Princeton Symphony Orchestra of light winds, string quartet, and a single horn crisply maneuvered Britten’s inventive orchestration, often with solo instruments assigned to specific characters and moods. Players were often required to switch among instruments, including flutist Scott Kemsley also playing alto flute and piccolo, and clarinetist Olivia Hamilton doubling on rich bass clarinet passages.
The cast for this opera was considerably larger than last week’s Festival double bill, with expanded sets and props to match. Scenic designer Julia Noulin-Mérat’s sets were bathed in light shades of purple and mauve to match Marie Miller’s costumes, and there was an extensive array of props onstage. Richard Gammon’s direction moved the actors around the stage well without making things look over-crowded. Adapted from a French short story and transplanted to England, Albert Herring is demanding of all participants, but is considered one of the great comic operas of the 20th century. Princeton Festival took a chance presenting this opera in a new and untested venue, but this was clearly a production with singers and instrumentalists who could adapt, creating a successful performance all the way around.
Princeton Festival continues this week with The Aaron Diehl Trio on June 22; a performance by the Festival Chorus and The Sebastians on June 23, preceded by a vocal recital by Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek; and POPS performances June 24 and 25. Information about these performances and the complete Princeton Festival season can be found at princetonsymphony.org.