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Albert Herring

Union Avenue Opera, 2017

John Huxhold Miller – St. Louis Post-Dispatch

As they did last year for Doubt, the stars have aligned once again for Union Avenue Opera’s 2017 season, which opened Friday night. This time the opera is Benjamin Britten’s hilarious Albert Herring, the story of a shy, naive boy in a British village, tied too closely to his mother’s apron strings. He is chosen to be the May King by a self-important committee that could not find a suitably innocent girl.

To the horror of the committee, he uses his prize money to go on a bender.

Everybody thinks he has died, but in the midst of their mourning, a disheveled but triumphant Albert reappears to celebrate his coming-out.

The head of the committee, the haughty Lady Billows, is played by St. Louis’ own homegrown celebrity, soprano Christine Brewer. This is someone who has sung at many of the great opera venues of the world and has made over 25 recordings with major conductors. And that success is the product of an athletic voice that is clear as a bell and can fill an auditorium effortlessly. Add to that her excellent acting chops, her outgoing personality and her knack for comedy and you have the full package — a superbly talented international superstar. She alone would be worth the price of admission, and you would expect her to stand out from the crowd.

However, Albert Herring is mostly an ensemble work where, when you add it all up, just about every character has roughly equal stage time. And the good news is that everyone in the ensemble could be called a star as well, all of them in their unique ways meeting the high level of proficiency exhibited by the headliner.

Tenor David Walton brought just the right blend of sheepishness and mischievousness to the title role with a vocal quality that fit the character. Janara Kellerman as his overbearing mother had a voice and a swagger even bigger than Brewer’s, which made Albert’s submission to her thumb totally understandable.

Lady Billows’ housekeeper, Florence Pike, walks a fine line between standing up to her boss or obeying her whims, and mezzo-soprano Debra Hillabrand brought it off perfectly with a warm but insistent voice.

The rest of the cast, including Leann Schuering, David Dillard, Anthony Heinemann and Mark Freiman, were all first among equals, hitting their marks, coordinating complicated ensemble numbers perfectly and making their various roles believable and relevant.

Nathaniel Buttram and Holly Janz made an adorable duo of lovers who plot to overthrow the plans of the committee, Buttram having the smoothest baritone this side of Thomas Hampson. Even the children played by Gina Malone, Victoria Botero and Seth Drake held their own both vocally and as actors with the rest of the cast.

Director Tim Ocel, who worked with Brewer in a 2005 Opera Theater of St. Louis production of another Britten work, Gloriana, had a complicated staging plan that the cast executed perfectly in Kyra Bishop’s richly decorated set of a grocery store stacked with vegetables and Teresa Doggett’s equally sumptuous costumes.

Conductor Scott Schoonover sorted out all the details of this complicated score using only 13 instrumentalists, including especially fine work by Jennifer Adams on flute and Jeanine York-Garesche on clarinet.

This production of Albert Herring is some of the finest work Union Avenue Opera has ever done. It is at as high a level of accomplishment as any professional music or arts organization in St. Louis. Plus, it’s great summer entertainment. Lots of fun. Don’t miss it.

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