Manhattan School of Music Senior Opera Theater 2018-19 Review: Albert Herring
Teamwork Wins The Game In Stunning Rendition Of Springtime Favorite Led By Jorge ParodiBy Logan Martell
Saturday, April 13, 2019 saw the second performance of the Manhattan School of Music’s production of the Springtime favorite, “Albert Herring.” With the production running for three nights, each night featured a different cast, comprised of students from the school’s Senior Opera Theater, headed by conductor Jorge Parodi and director Dona D. Vaughn.
This effervescent work, composed by Benjamin Britten, unfolds in a village where, due to no women seeming to be of proper virtue, the yearly honor of May Queen instead falls upon Albert, a young grocer domineered by his well-intentioned mother. What ensued was an evening of spirited comedy and intoxicating musical techniques.
A Crazed Committee
With a great emphasis on the ensemble, the opera’s scenes are often set in sumptuous meeting spaces which proves fertile ground for the powerful personalities of the characters. The lights quickly reveal a hurried Hanna Yiu in the role of Florence Pike, servant to the demanding Lady Billows. Her list of tasks grew along with the swell of strings until they both come to a sudden stop as Yiu laments “One lifetime, one brain, one pair of hands are all too few for Lady B.” The gorgeous, sustained opening she gave to the line “Sometimes I wish,” displayed a yearning, vocal freedom that added nuance to the bustling servant.
In the role of Lady Billows, Lydia Li was frequently a force to be reckoned with. Her offstage orders and the pounding of drums lent an air of severity that Li contrasted with her dignified entrance. The ensemble soon danced to her every whim, with a harp filling in as she tantalized with a prize for the May Queen, just as the crash of a cymbal snapped them to frightened attention. With no options for a virtuous queen, her settling for Albert brought a sudden turnaround to the tense atmosphere; their fun and frantic stretta was dappled with Li’s haughty, glittering ornaments. For all her stuffiness, Li also got the chance to deliver humorous one liners such as, when presenting Albert with his prize money, proudly states “This purse of otterskin… my father shot the brute in ‘fifty six on Christmas Eve, with five and twenty sovereigns inside!”
As Vicar Gedge, Qin Li, often used his soothing baritone to lend churchly counsel. Desiring virtue above all else, Billows defers to the vicar, who tries to cut to the heart of the matter with the phrase “Virtue, says holy writ, is virtue. Is Albert virtuous, yes or no? That is what we need to know.” When Albert is paraded in for his May Day coronation, Li conscripted one section of the audience with a simple, upward wave of his arms as they rose from their seats to hail the entering virgin. When commenting on Wordsworth’s gift of “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs,” Li delivered it with a low, grim serenity, hinting at an unpleasant end for Albert as the burden was unloaded into the latter’s arms.
As the teacher Miss Wordsworth, Melanie Spector’s beaming soprano placed her at the upper textures of the May Day Committee, where her musical and comedic sensibility often shone. This was heard soon after her entrance as her phrase “Oh I find it so refreshing to escape from school on a sunny day like this,” was marked with light, fluttering keys as Gedge joined in to harmonize on the emerging Spring. As the committee praised Albert at his coronation, Spector’s rising repetitions of his name reached a steamy excess, requiring her to fan herself off.
Full of Spirits
At the heart of all the hype was Andrew Hoben in the role of Albert Herring. After watching Sid and Nancy’s affections, his reserved phrases opened up invitingly with the line “Yet I’d like to try that kind of life.” After an initial refusal, the mocking song of schoolchildren, which accompanied the furious henpecking he received from his mother, effectively added insult to injury.
With the children taking their cue given by a subtle gesture from Parodi, it seemed as though the orchestra was an active conspirer in Albert’s anguish. An unwilling participant in his coronation, the mortified Albert soon takes on a new perspective thanks to a few spiked glasses of lemonade; this shift is reinforced through the rolling harp as he unknowingly guzzled down liquid courage. Hoben skillfully navigated the conflicting states of Albert’s emotional journey, staggering his way in and out of scenes with a maudlin grace that led to an unseen bender through the village.
As his domineering mother, Mrs. Herring, Yingmeige Xiong proved herself a volatile and controlling caregiver. When being present with the missing Albert’s tarnished crown of orange blossoms, Xiong’s devastation was highly palpable as heard by the grief in her phrase “He’s dead and gone… this is all that remains…” with her heart-wrenching repetitions trailing away as she made her exit.
The lovers Sid and Nancy were played by Marcel Sokalski and Veronica Mak, respectively. Sokalski’s romantic tones highlighted imagery such as “Girls mean Spring six times a week, and twice on Sundays.” Nearly swept along by his passion as he readies to leave with Nancy, Sokalski receives a cue to breathe before the lovers launch into an stanza of lovingly trading and harmonizing lines. A moment of great laughter came when Sid mixed rum into Albert’s lemonade, accompanied by the fateful sting of the half-diminished “Tristan chord.” After Albert’s drunken disappearance, the audience is treated to the genuine care found in Mak’s mezzo-soprano; this affectionate charm was nicely compliment by the returning harp motive.
The village children, Emmie, Cis, and Harry, were played by Luiza Sayao, Hyejin Yoon, and Yunchan Zhou, respectively. Their rambunctiousness was frequently joined with humorous lines; as Albert asks why they’re not in school, Sayao’s Emmie cheerily explained: “On account of Miss Weaver, our botany teacher, went camping at Easter, got scarlet fever… They wouldn’t expect us at school for a week, in case we’re infectious.” As Sayao ran out, her tapering farewell of “Taa!” made for a cute, extended punctuation. When learning a song for the May Day coronation, their preoccupation with sweets proved a fun distraction as they listed off confectionaries.
Shortly after, when the girls present Albert and Mrs. Herring with flowers, Yoon’s Cis freezes in the spotlight, forgetting words as basic as “Mother” and “Albert” before running off teary-eyed and flustered. Albert’s interaction with them at the end of the opera sweetly affirms his growth as a person; while he is now unafraid to stand up for himself before his elders, he shows the children a mature generosity before tossing away his sullied crown and washing his hands of the entire matter.
With this opera, teamwork is the name of the game, and Saturday night’s cast of student artists showcased an exuberant sense of it. Through the dense ensemble numbers and clashing of upper-class egos, a truly touching and entertaining sort of coming-of-age story emerges like the flowers of Spring. The students of the Manhattan School of Music’s Senior Opera Theater can take pride in their madcap production, which crowns their efforts as they ready to make the next step in their careers and take to opera stages worldwide.