- The Washington Times - Monday, July 20, 2009

Highlighted by a sparkling production of Benjamin Britten’s comic opera “Albert Herring,” Lorin Maazel’s first Castleton Festival wrapped up its three-week run in rural Virginia during the weekend.

The opera’s sets were serviceable but effective. The orchestral accompaniment, provided by musicians from London’s Royal College of Music, was spot-on throughout. And the singing of the young cast ranged from decent to outstanding.

Rarely heard in the U.S., like the other Britten chamber operas on the festival’s bill of fare, “Albert Herring” is a lighthearted satirical romp focusing on the virtues and foibles of life in a small English town.

Conducting a sort of star search for a virtuous young woman to serve as her small town’s May queen, the priggish but aptly named Lady Billows rejects all suggestions as lacking in moral qualities. She chooses instead to crown as May king the reputed town idiot, Albert Herring, who lives with his mum and dutifully toils in their small grocery shop. But she lives to regret this. Albert’s pals surreptitiously spike their abstemious friend’s punch with rum, and the hapless bumpkin embarks on a night of debauchery.

Slightly reminiscent of Tom Hulce in the film “Amadeus,” strapping tenor Brian Porter (Albert) was perfect as a wide-eyed mama’s boy who proves a remarkably quick study when it comes to being bad. His strong, sunny voice and beautifully clear diction gave him command of every scene was in.

The large supporting cast gave him colorful backing, each portraying comically stereotypical characters with great sympathy and vocal punch. Getting strong marks were pranksters Sid (baritone Adrian Kramer) and Nancy (mezzo Tammy Coil); town worthies Mayor Upfold (tenor Tyler S. Nelson), Vicar Gedge (baritone Alexander Tall), teacher Miss Wordsworth (soprano Ashleigh Semkiw), and the earthy cop, Superintendent Budd (bass Benjamin Bloomfield).

Also notable were the performances of mezzo-soprano Kristin Patterson as stodgy servant Florence Pike, and mezzo Rachel Calloway as the hapless Mrs. Herring. Tina Hughes, Ellen Broetzmann, and Harry Risoleo gave sprightly performances as three naughty children, although they all need to work on their diction.

But the best performance of all was turned in by soprano Jennifer Check as the insufferable Lady Billows. Her haughty imperiousness drove the satirical tempo of the show. And her enormous yet craftily contoured voice - nearly Wagnerian in force - was well-suited to the part of a small town’s grande dame and Benjamin Britten’s perfect moral foil.

A special hat tip goes to the primary cast members who combined beautifully in Mr. Britten’s many and complex ensemble numbers - some of the finest he composed.

Kudos as well to conductor Timothy Myers, who was recently at Wolf Trap to conduct that opera company’s new production of “Cosi fan tutte.” Mr. Myers kept his young forces in synch throughout nearly all of this three-hour production - something we often long for in higher-priced professional productions.

RATING: ***

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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