27 March 2011

Britten in Berkeley 2: Comedy

(Blogger seems to be removing all of my paragraph breaks today. I have no idea why. I hope I've managed to fix it.)

Last night I went to the Castleton Festival Opera's production in Berkeley of Albert Herring. The Rape of Lucretia, which I saw the night before, is (among other things) about the effects of male power on women, and Albert Herring is about the effects of female power on men. I had seen it on DVD but never on stage, and to my surprise when I looked for a copy this morning among my thousands of discs, I do not own it on CD. Premiered the year after Lucretia, it is a comedy, though I’ll say right now that when the third act of a comedy doesn’t even start until 10:30, my heart sinks and my spirits fail to lift.

During the second intermission, for reasons that will become clearer as I go on, I briefly considered just leaving, but luckily for me my ingrained habit of sticking it out to the end prevailed since otherwise I would have missed the evening's musical highlight, the threnody as the gathered village mourns Albert’s hat (and, they assume, Albert himself). It was profound and beautiful, one of those sudden moments of sorrow that give a comedy depth, though like much of the opera it went on a bit too long. It was past midnight before I got home. I would hate to lose any of Britten’s ravishing music, but I sure could take scissors to Eric Crozier’s libretto.

Like Lucretia, Albert Herring reflects its post-war period, but unfortunately it reflects not the great philosophical questions of the time, which have no answers and therefore tend to endure, but prevailing psychological theories, whose certainties come with a definite shelf-life.

Albert is a Momma’s boy, which means he is "repressed" by his mother (Oedipus and his famous complex undoubtedly hover over the relationship), and this repression (in this theory) inevitably ends in explosion: Albert, anointed the virginal May King by Lady Billows and her gang of do-gooders, goes out on a tear. In the morning he is missing and presumed dead, though in fact he is reborn: a night of drunkenness (along with fighting and perhaps a visit to a prostitute) establishes his independence. Oh, he’s still working for his mother in her shop, and still teased by the local children, but presumably he can handle all of them now.

As far as I know, this opera is usually presented as a straightforward, rather good-natured comedy, a form in which it doesn’t quite work for me: one night of drunkenness doesn’t do away with years of shyness (believe me, I know), and at the end when Albert kisses Sid’s girl Nancy (Sid and Nancy – a lovely coincidence!) I see it not as his cheerful entry into the world of normal guys but as a complex and troubling moment; he’s longed for Nancy but realized she has no sexual interest in him; it’s a strange moment for him and her and Sid. I think it’s high time to approach this opera in a darker and more ambiguous way (much as Cosi Fan Tutte has gone from frivolous farce about trivial people to haunting exploration of the ambiguities of identity).

This production, staged like the previous night's Lucretia by William Kerley, stuck to the shallow end throughout. There was way too much throwing of fruit (and I doubt that a prudent shopkeeper like Mrs Herring would be so cavalier about the stock her livelihood depends on). The three children (baldly and badly amplified) were never quite incorporated smoothly into the action (I assume they’re local and perhaps there wasn’t enough rehearsal time). There was, oddly, no attempt to make the older townspeople look older (the singers are mostly very young, at the beginning of their careers), so that you missed the whole sense of age versus youth.

Albert was played by Brian Porter, who is an immensely likeable performer – maybe too likeable for Albert, who has a strange side that causes children to ridicule him. Porter didn’t seem particularly shy; I didn’t see any of the deep stubbornness that shy people often have, or the deep anger and humiliation that Albert feels, particularly in the scene in the shop after the May Fair, when he overhears Sid and Nancy outside talking about him (and the way it was staged, it wasn’t as clear as it should be that he was overhearing them). When he returns in Act 3 and describes his night to the worried and disapproving townspeople, he seemed fairly sunny and cheerful – there was no edge as he told them how he had deliberately done everything they had just rewarded him for not doing.

Nancy Gustafson gave what I felt was a misguided performance as Lady Billows. This was no grande dame, serene in the assurance that her morally correct attitudes entitle her to direct the lives of lesser mortals (a type not unknown in these parts). Instead she simpered and chortled and blinked and winked constantly, and was dressed oddly not in a dowager’s severity but in light and attractive colors; it was difficult to tell why everyone unquestioningly obeyed her, and why she held the dominant position she did.

The whole cast was up there trying (among those I haven’t mentioned yet, I found Adrian Kramer as Sid and Ashleigh Semkiw as Miss Wordsworth particularly appealing) but I found the whole thing unconvincing. If you’re going to treat something as light and frivolous, it really needs to come in well under three hours and ten minutes. And the story is too much of a stacked deck; we’re primed to ridicule the officious Lady Billows and to applaud Albert when he breaks free, even though, as I noted above, his actual position hasn’t changed much: he’s still sleeping alone.

As I trudged off to catch the train, I reflected that Lady Billows not only really is correct most of the time; in her own way she’s actually a progressive. The opera is set in a period before legal contraception or abortion, when job opportunities for women were extremely limited, and sexually transmitted diseases were not so easily cured: maybe it’s not such a bad idea for her to warn the village girls against sexual activity that could end up leaving them penniless or otherwise even more trapped than they already are. Can we really blame her for condemning excessive drink (I think it’s easy to forget at this point that prohibition was a feminist issue)? And if anyone is going to condemn her condemnation of tobacco, that person isn’t yours truly. (During both intermissions, one of the musicians must have gone out to smoke, because the smell coming from the pit right after was just as nasty as Lady Billows said it was).

I can't see Lady Billows as purely a ridiculous figure. And the terms of Albert’s liberation are presented in a very dated, mid-century way: smoking, drinking, and promiscuity are what mark the behavior of mature adults. It’s all presented as very healthy, even wholesome, and it must have seemed so as the first cracks started to appear in the oppressive gray façade of postwar propriety. I can't quite take it as intended, though, in this time and place.

Well, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. I thought of the young man near me on the BART ride home after Lucretia, who kept talking very loudly into his cell phone about how he "couldn’t find no job" because of that concealed weapons charge. He had decades ahead of him (assuming his life didn’t come to an early violent end) in which to be haunted by his high-spirited youthful excesses. Repression and propriety aren't always such bad things. I realize there are dangerous bigots and sexual prigs at large today, but such people are unlikely to attend, let alone be converted by, arty chamber operas presented in Berkeley.

I’m too much a combination of Albert and Lady Billows to find the ending of this opera convincing or even uplifting. There’s a famous anecdote about Garbo watching Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast and murmuring at the end, “Give me back my beast.” Albert had been something out of the ordinary; one night of drunken fighting and suddenly he’s a regular lad, just like the rest. The true tragicomedy of the Good Boy remains to be written.


Civic Center said...

A major problem was Lorin Maazel's conducting which was way too sluggish. Plus, the ensembles were pretty much a mess. I just put on the Britten recording to hear how it's supposed to sound and the piece is ten times livelier than what we listened to in Berkeley.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I had the feeling that it was really under-rehearsed.

Another thing about the staging: all those peaches. The reason I was looking for CDs which I turned out not to have is that I wanted to check the libretto -- I assume the sung references to peaches come from there, but the director used them with careless abandon as general symbols of sensuality (Lady Billows throwing out all those peaches in the first scene -- why did she have a bowl of rotten fruit on her table? -- Sid giving Nancy peaches, etc) and this bothered me because I'm sure peaches were mentioned only because they would be an extremely expensive hothouse luxury item -- peaches are not in season in May! Sorry to get all "locally sourced produce" on you, and this comment is coming out of left field here, but it just kept bugging me.