La Scena Musicale

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Opening Night at Paris' Opéra-Comique - Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring

by Frank Cadenhead

The second Parisian opening night is at the historic Opéra-Comique. I mounted the metro exit stairs at Auber (a station named for the composer) and arrived in the center of a busy traffic circle. turning around, you get the full effect of the grandiloquent facade of the Paris Opera's old house, the Palais Garnier, recently clean, dominating the square and glowing brilliantly in the night. To get to the Comique, however, you turn left after the stairs and head up Boulevard des Capucines. To my surprise, this very night, I noted a plaque high on a doorway at the building at the corner. Jacques Offenbach died in that building. How many times I have walked this route and never seen that sign. After two blocks, the name changes to Boulevard des Italians. This is not the Champs-Elysees and you pass chain restaurants and movie houses. But after six blocks you turn right on Rue Favart and the building entrance is 100 meters or so down the street, facing its own small plaza.

The historic Comique, also called the Salle Favart, saw many first performances: Bizet's Carmen, Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande and Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust to name only a few. The latest in a series of theatres on that spot, the current one is from 1898 and seats 1200. It was recently refurbished and given a modest budget by the state after being used for popular events for several years. It has now directed its focus to the baroque and the new interest in French opera - something the post-War French completely neglected. This season, for example, includes Hérold's Zampa and Auber's Fra Diavolo with Rameau's Zoroastre next month, Chabrier's Le Roi Malgré Lui from Lyon in April and the Carmen in June will be conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. The finest Parisian opera production so far this season was the December production by Deborah Warner of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas with Bill Christie and his Les Arts Florissants at their elegiac best. But there are newer operas on the schedule too, including the most recent opera by Peter Eotvos, Lady Sarashina and the opera tonight, Benjamin Britten's 1947 opera, Albert Herring.

Did you ever wish that the evening you are witnessing could be recorded? It was that kind of a night. It is a rarely produced opera and you know that it will not likely ever be as well done - a cast of honored veterans of the English operatic stage, a spot-on staging and an environment where the music could bloom at its best. Deliciously tart and witty, this comedy originally starred Benjamin Britten's lifetime companion, the tenor Peter Pears. The story centers on a Suffolk small town and their search for a virtuous May Queen. The town leaders go through the list of eligible young women, finding fault with all of them; in the contemporary updating, tapes from the omnipresent UK security cameras document the misbehavior. They decide, as a critique of the wayward girls, to name a reclusive young man, a store clerk named Albert Herring, as the May King.

The wide-eyed young man, the flawless tenor Allan Clayton, works at a convenience store owned by his mother. In the smart staging of Richard Brunel, the store front is glass and steel with all the fruits and vegetables wrapped in plastic. Herring learns of the dubious honor he has received when the town leaders show up at the store. The mother is entranced with the small prize money but Herring is confused. The American soprano Nancy Gustafson was elegant is the imperious Lady Billows but her mushy pronunciation had me reading the French translation more than once. There were no problems like that with the brilliant mezzo Felicity Palmer as her assistant, Florence Pike. Andrew Greenan was the blustery police commissioner with the fine tenor Simeon Esper as an ever-smiling mayor. Soprano Ailish Tynan, as the moral Miss Wordsworth, and baritone Christopher Purves, the eternally upbeat vicar, completed the town leadership. Hanna Shaer was the overbearing mother and played that with a dry intensity that was chilling. Baritone Leigh Melrose and mezzo Julia Riley were splendid as Sid and Nancy, a randy young couple who tempt Albert to break out of his shell.

The smart and deliciously good-humored music was unexpected from the composer. Such fun was hardly anticipated from a composer who shows his petulant side in the collection of his letters recently published. Assisting in this special night at the opera were conductor Laurence Equilbey whose best-selling recordings with her chorus, Accentus, have made her a bright new star in France. Conducting a score of members of the orchestra of the Opera of Rouen Haute-Normandie, where this opera is a co-production, her reading of the score of this exceptional ensemble opera was warm and exuberant and could have not been more musically focused.

While all operas at the Comique are not so flawlessly executed, witnessing opera in that house is not to be missed those attached to the lyric arts. Its intimate atmosphere is a perfect place to enjoy opera. Along with the operas they stage they also have concerts, lectures and events for young people illuminating the the work, the composer and his time. The website, in French, is

See also: Opening Night at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro

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