If comedy is all about timing, then Oberlin Conservatory’s production of Albert Herring was a master class in getting laughs. In four performances last week, professor and stage director Jonathon Field ran his young cast through whipcrack pacing, propelled by a smart performance in the pit to bring antic life to Britten’s comic opera.

<i>Albert Herring</i> ensemble © John Seyfried
Albert Herring ensemble
© John Seyfried

It’s difficult at this juncture to understand the reticence surrounding Albert Herring’s 1947 première at Glyndebourne, where founder John Christie reportedly warned the audience, “This isn’t our kind of thing”. But if virginity and sexual preferences seem like anachronistic concerns, the problems posed by the piece are enduring and real. A long-winded work, that runs nearly three hours, it treads a fine line between opera and operetta, and the emotional content veers from pathos to slapstick. Making it work as light-hearted comedy is, well, work.

Field approached it in the spirit of screwball comedy, the rapid-fire, histrionic style of film-making that was popular in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s. Characters marched, preened, bantered and cajoled in clockwork precision, starting with the group that comes to Lady Billows’ home to decide who will be crowned Queen of the May. Stereotypically stiff and proper, they seemed like interlocking parts of a well-oiled machine, establishing caricatures (priggish schoolmarm, huffy police superintendent) with a few deft lines and gestures before flitting into places around a dining table to make unctuous pitches for their candidates.

That set up an amusingly pompous entrance by Lady Billows, played on Friday night by Amber Monroe, whose privileged mien and florid indignation delivered in Wagnerian-sized vocals provided amusing reaction shots throughout the entire evening. The snappy put-downs of her maid, sung by Micaëla Aldridge, to each of the proposed names set a brisk tempo and arch tone of comic anticipation.

The pace slowed with the title character’s appearance in the second half of Act I, and Joshua Blue’s one-dimensional portrayal of Albert's depression didn’t help. Daveed Buzaglo’s cloying Sid was more distracting than amusing, but Hannah Hagerty as his girlfriend, Nancy, brought back some sparkle, particularly in their love duet. When the committee flooded in for a rousing production number, announcing Albert as King of the May, the cascade of reactions – Albert aghast, his mother thrilled, Lady Billows dangling the prize purse – set an enticing admixture of farce, satire and whimsy.

Britten’s witty score comes to the fore in Act II, where Field took full advantage of comic set pieces like Miss Wordsworth (Aubry Ballaro-Hagadorn) rehearsing her mischievous choral trio. Even more impressive was the way he had his singers play to the quirks in the music, staying tightly synchronized to flashes of color in the woodwinds or cracks of percussion that added dimension to the characters’ personalities. The score is also notable for its many references, and to that Field added a few of his own onstage. Lady Billows had a Scarlett O’Hara moment on the staircase of her home, and it took a momentary mimic of da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” to induce Albert to get up and speak at the banquet celebrating his crowning. Other moments of obvious humor drew more laughs, but Field’s sly references added spice to the performance, like the topical references occasionally inserted in operettas.

<i>Albert Herring</i> © John Seyfried
Albert Herring
© John Seyfried

Much of the credit for the production’s success has to be shared with conductor Christopher Larkin, whose credits include a stint as music director of the New York City Opera touring company. Even for a small orchestra (13 players), the sound was remarkably transparent, clear and disciplined, without losing the spontaneity that gives Albert Herring its bright spirit and momentum. Violinist Yuri Popowycz deserves special mention for a virtuoso invocation of whistling. The orchestra’s intermezzos merited an extra round of applause.

The singing was uniformly strong, without a weak voice in the cast. After Albert downed his spiked lemonade and his character opened up, Blue blossomed into a rich, full tenor who dominated the stage by the final curtain. Monroe never failed to get a reaction to her outsized singing and acting, and the committee members turned in well-crafted character studies.

Peter Pears, Britten’s partner, sang the role of Albert Herring at the 1947 première, adding another layer to the homosexual connotations of crowning a King of the May. Yet even with equal rights issues very much in the news these days, it was another aspect of the Oberlin production that spoke eloquently without words: both Blue and Monroe are black. In practical terms this makes no difference, as casting is color-blind and the idea is to give students experience, not make a political statement.

Still, there it was – a group of fussy burghers deferring to a black woman, and a whole town in a tizzy when a black man unexpectedly goes missing. In 57 years, it seems we’ve made some progress after all.