A moral crisis triggered by the inability to find a virginal maiden sounds like just the thing for a mythological tale or a Baroque opera. But that idea and its necessary aftermath are, more or less, the crux of Albert Herring, the 1947 comic opera by Benjamin Britten drawn from a short story by Guy de Maupassant, “Le Rosier de Madame Husson.”
Britten and his librettist, Eric Crozier, moved Maupassant’s French setting to a typical English village in East Suffolk where the local virtue committee, led by Lady Billows, has been thwarted in choosing a May Queen because no young lady of suitable virtue can be found. Lady Billows is forced to rethink the selection and choose a May King instead—Albert Herring, a meek and necessarily innocent lad who runs a greengrocer’s shop for his domineering, widowed mother. The story’s twist comes at the party in his honor—his chums spike his lemonade, which sets off an evening of more drinking and the implication of certain behavior unbefitting a virtuous May King. It is in this sudden awareness of the world outside of his previously closed existence that Albert changes the course of his life. As in other Britten works, lurking beneath the obvious is the composer’s somewhat autobiographical view of the individual who realizes he just can’t conform to the norms of society.
Reinforcing the obvious parody and the genuinely funny premise is Britten’s score, inventive and likeable, which contains delightful undercurrents of subtle musical parody. Albert’s enjoyment of his rum-infused lemonade has suggestions of the love-potion motif from Tristan und Isolde. A slightly jazzy plucked bass subtly suggests the “modern” love between Sid and Nancy, Albert’s village chums.
Although Britten intended Albert Herring as a model for English chamber opera production, it has become a favorite and popular vehicle for university opera companies due to its interesting, but challenging, roles for singers with good English diction, and its chamber-size orchestra and production requirements. The University of Tennessee Opera Theatre has performed Albert Herring on several prior occasions, yet it remains an audience favorite.
UTOT director Michael McConnell and music director Kevin Class have chosen a mostly double cast, split over the four weekend Rossini Festival performances. Singing the title role of Albert Herring will be Cody Boling and Erik Lickiss. Sid and Nancy will be sung by Kevin Richard Doherty and Ryland Pope as Sid, and Maria Natale and Amanda Tittle as Nancy. In the role of Lady Billows will be Denisha Ballew and Corinne Stevens. UT professor of voice Andrew Wentzel takes on the droll Superintendent Budd.
Befitting an ensemble production, Britten and Crozier gave every role vocal and comedic opportunities. Filling out the cast will be Susan Thieme as Lady Billow’s housekeeper; Anna Eschbach and Annie Schwartz as Miss Wordsworth; Seth Maples and Jesse Stock as the Vicar; Thomas Isaac Collins as the Mayor; and Martha Prewitt as Mrs. Herring.