Albert Herring, Benjamin Britten’s charming slice of small-minded country life, proves an ideal choice for the conservatory setting. Britten and his librettist, Eric Crozier, rendered their provincial characters in broad comic strokes – the kind of earthy, outlandish tropes that early-career performers tend to relish. The student singers who populate Curtis Opera Theatre’s production bring youthful exuberance to their assignments, along with a fair amount of vocal resplendence.

Ruby Dibble (Mrs Herring), Ethan Burck (Albert Herring) and Merissa Beddows (Lady Billows)
© WMB Photo

Director Eve Summer piquantly captures the state of life in an insular English village, with an assist from Whitney Locher’s candy-colored costumes and Julia Noulin-Mérat’s verdant garden set. You could practically smell the wisteria! This is a comedy, but it’s also a comedy by Benjamin Britten, and all of his familiar focal points arrive on cue: class distinctions, the pernicious influence of gossip, the lingering sense of poverty, the sense that keeping up appearances matters more than being a good person. Summer handles these tonal shifts nicely, underlining the bite beneath Crozier’s amusing libretto, and making sure that an air of hypocrisy (Britten’s eternal subject) is always front and center.

Ben Schaefer (Sid), Sophia Maekawa (Nancy) and Ethan Burck (Albert Herring)
© WMB Photo

The cutting parody of Anglican mores is never more apparent that in the opera’s first scene, where the upper crust of Loxford opine that no local girl has the purity to be crowned May Queen. At Curtis, it’s staged as a drawing-room tour de force. It’s also where we hear some of the evening’s best voices, with nearly all the supporting roles cast from considerable strength. In particular, soprano Lindsey Reynolds brought a big personality and even bigger instrument to the chirpy schoolteacher Miss Wordsworth. Mezzo Anastasiia Sidorova’s dusky mezzo added an air of mystery to her portrayal of the secretary, Florence Pike. Bass-baritone Andrew Moore, bass Thomas Petrushka and especially tenor Colin Aikins married characterful acting and first-rank vocalizing in their portrayals of the town’s ineffectual civic leaders.

The working-class ranks were equally impressive, with mezzo Ruby Dibble deploying a refulgent, easily produced mezzo as the forbidding Mrs Herring. Baritone Ben Schaefer and mezzo Sophia Maekawa exuded considerable charm to Sid and Nancy, the spritely young couple who trick the sheepish title character into imbibing his first sip of rum.

Albert Herring at Curtis Opera Theatre
© WMB Photo

Perhaps surprisingly, the two performances about which I have reservations are the leads. Tenor Ethan Burck found the right note of clueless innocence as Albert, the bumbling shop assistant whose unworldliness earns the title of May King. But he didn’t quite manage the tonal shift after the character awakens to the detriments of his sheltered life, and his singing sounded occasionally constricted and unsupported in its uppermost range. Merissa Beddows’ sweet-toned soprano carried nicely, and she acted the starchy Lady Billows to the hilt. But her essentially lyric sound is a size too small for a role that’s meant to be a Hochdramatischer parody. (As is common in conservatory productions, most roles in the opera are double cast.)

Veteran conductor George Manahan led a fine reading of the score, notable for drawing out the various folk flavors and opera buffa undertones. He occasionally swamped the singers with extreme shifts in dynamics, and noisy scene changes sometimes threatened to drown out musical interludes. The evening’s musical MVP was pianist Miloš Repický, who brought music-hall flair to the piano recitative.