Benjamin Britten’s 1947 comic opera “Albert Herring” revels in the notion of being bad on purpose. The Dunster House Opera’s current production, which runs through Feb. 13, uses its formidable discipline to create a tight, wry vision of Britten’s fable of mischief.
The haughty, moralizing elders of a small English town, unable to find a female chaste enough to crown queen on May Day, turn to the one youth they can be sure is a virgin: the spineless, blandly upright Albert Herring (Zander J. MacQuitty ’10). Understandably embarrassed at having his sex life (or lack thereof) on display, Albert is forced to undergo the further humiliations of wearing a funny hat and being pointed at. He’s miserable until he drinks a glass of spiked lemonade, which not only gets him through the day but also propels him into a night of deliberate, serial offstage sinning. To the impotent consternation of the townsfolk, Albert returns in the morning with a backbone and a smirk.
Britten’s astringent score calls for an equally dry wit, and Dunster House Opera’s laconic production of “Herring” appropriately aims more for poised subtlety than madcap laughter. Concise acting makes the plot clear at all times, even when the clarity comes at the expense of a joke (though there are plenty). Humor emerges from the libretto rather than being scaffolded upon it.
The conservative approach extends to the performance space in creative ways. Dunster Dining Hall provides an unforgiving stage: sound gets trapped in pockets, the ceiling height forces an odd lighting setup, and the dark wood paneling renders everything strangely somber. But the company manages to employ the staid dignity of the room to reinforce the moral severity of the town elders. At one point, they even co-opt one of the chandeliers—by far the most physically obtrusive element of the space—as a prop.
The problem of the flow of sound is more difficult to solve. Without a pit as such, the orchestra must play on the same level as the audience, and tends to trap the singing behind it, occasionally making it difficult to catch words or phrases. However, music director Nico A. Olarte-Hayes ’11 leads the chamber orchestra with admirable restraint, and even the best of conductors and ensembles would have a hard time playing more surreptitiously.
Olarte-Hayes also manages to capture Britten’s pastoral disquiet especially well, given the disadvantage of a reduced dynamic palette. In terms of both music and plot, the defining idiosyncrasy and greatest challenge of Britten’s work is the sense of a rural world that has just disappeared from real life—grimy and intolerant, yet somehow possessed of some endearing ignorance that we no longer have. The orchestra warmly articulates the meandering melodic lines, but shades them with a well-measured anxiety that elegantly propels the emotional dynamic of the opera.
The space can make the singers sound quieter than they actually are. Given these constraints, sometimes mezzo-fortes in place of pianos might have been more helpful for both the audience and the cast, as the more nuanced dynamic gestures often disappear beneath the accompaniment. Lucid narrative drive compensates for the occasional gaps in audibility, though, and a coherent collective vision of the direction of each scene helps anchor the plot to a regular pace (“Herring,” with apologies to Britten, does tend to saunter rather than walk). Matthew B. Bird ’10, as the village vicar, has the clearest sense of his surroundings and produces a correspondingly full sound that drew the most out of an otherwise secondary role. Bridget Haile ’11 performs the role of the small-town bigwig Lady Billows with glowing irony and cutting diction—crucial for an English-language opera performed without the benefit of surtitles.
The cleverest and most enjoyable aspect of the company’s performance, though, is the carefully maintained attention to the many styles, genres, and works that Britten gleefully ventriloquizes. Flirtation between Sid (James B. Danner ’12) and Nancy (Katie K. Schick ’10) swings into a harsh sort of jazz, sung with appropriate swagger and well-coordinated stage direction that emphasizes the awkwardness of the moment for Albert. Imitation folk songs are sung in a child’s squeal. Mock-Italian quintet singing is delivered with appropriate exuberance. Herring hiccups repeatedly to the “Tristan und Isolde” chord before he goes out for his night on the town—Britten’s in-joke to regular operagoers, and one entirely appropriate for an opera that depicts desire as transgressive as Wagner’s, but with infinitely more levity.