After the success of Benjamin Britten’s opera The Rape of Lucretia, Britten and director/librettist Eric Crozier discussed future operatic projects. The composer wanted his next opera to be a comedy and insisted that it be set in England. When Crozier suggested adapting Guy de Maupassant’s La Rosier de Madame Husson, Britten knew he was on to something good. Indeed, it was an ideal choice.

Alek Shrader as Albert Herring; Janis Kelly as Lady Billows; Jonathan Michie as Mr. Gedge, the Vicar © Robert Millard for LA Opera
Alek Shrader as Albert Herring; Janis Kelly as Lady Billows; Jonathan Michie as Mr. Gedge, the Vicar
© Robert Millard for LA Opera

The work’s plot, circling around the antics of intrusive, teetotaling small-town folk who, unable to find a suitable a young lass of virtue true to crown as the local “Rose Queen,” instead crown the timid Albert Herring as “Rose King.” Its switching of gender roles and its commentary of mob mentality encroaching upon the private life of the individual spoke directly to Britten’s own concerns, and was too good to pass up.

In typical fashion, Britten stayed true to his idea of the work as comedy, producing one that Sviatoslav Richter famously referred to as the “greatest comic opera of the 20th century.” But underneath the veneer of smiling cheer lurks a deep strain of seriousness and outrage, which was palpable in LA Opera’s superb production. Especially amidst all the national furore regarding gay marriage, Albert Herring seemed even more relevant now than in Britten’s own day.

The sardonic humor of the opera was underlined further with the wry stage production and design, courtesy of director Paul Curran and stage and costume designer Kevin Knight. Elegant, yet goofy –as if it had strayed from the set of a sitcom – the choices in design were wonderfully tongue-in-cheek.

The singing, too, was of a high level of excellence. Richard Bernstein’s deliciously buffoonish bass-baritone was superb as Superintendent Budd, while Robert McPherson was the epitome of blustery bureaucracy as Mayor Upfold. His lyric tenor is the right amount of saccharine, perfect for his role. Outstanding was Alex Shrader in the title role, though Janis Kelley as the busybody Lady Billows nearly stole.

James Conlon and the LA Opera Orchestra slipped hand-in-glove into Britten’s dry wit, playing with great sensitivity to the plot’s nuances. In their hands the opera dazzled with Mozartian grace, playing up Britten’s many knowing winks to 18th-century operatic tradition.

Though one can argue with Sviatoslav Richter whether the work is indeed the greatest comic opera of the past century, there is no doubt – especially in LA Opera’s production – that the work is one of the most vitally relevant to our times.

LA Opera, with the uniform excellence of its ensemble, stage design, direction, and quality of the orchestra, proves again that it is indeed one of the finest opera companies in the United States today. Though other companies may be bigger names, for sheer musical quality, the LA Opera leaves other companies looking paler and more staid by the minute.

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