megan wilkerson

‘Albert Herring’ review: keeping it fresh

Portland State University production overcomes the challenges posed by Benjamin Britten’s mid-20th century opera

by ANGELA ALLEN

British composer Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring is a challenging opera for both performers and audiences accustomed to the usual Romantic classics. Though funny, it proved a serious undertaking for the Portland State University Opera this week at Lincoln Performance Hall. Delivered in two acts and several scenes, with three changes of bright creative scenery and lighting, the opera proved an achievement for these students, most of them undergraduates—and it succeeded in overcoming many of those challenges.

Britten composed Albert Herring after World War II and it debuted in 1947, when he directed it at England’s Glyndebourne Festival. The comic chamber opera portrays an uptight Victorian English town, similar to Britten’s own Lowestoft in Sussex. Its stuffy, class-conscious “dignitaries” decide the only person fit to be crowned May “king” (the queen potentials are voted down for their various sins and indiscretions) is the virginal, naive and henpecked Albert Herring.

That star role is sung here by uber-talented tenor Christian Sanders, who worked with the PSU cast this spring. He is a resident artist at the Utah Opera and has sung major roles in such operas as La Boheme, Falstaff, Little Women, the Magic Flute, Gianni Schicchi and Jules Massenet’s Cendrillon. He sang the prince chaplain in the 2013 world premiere of Theodore Morrison’s Oscar at the Santa Fe Opera with renowned countertenor David Daniels. So he’s been around.

Christian Sanders stars in Portland State University’s production of ‘Albert Herring.’ Photo: Joe Cantrell.

Sanders’ maturity and versatility gave the opera, directed by stage veteran Brenda Nuckton, a professional texture. Early on, he played Albert as a tight-lipped insecure nerd toiling in his mother’s grocery store as hilariously he did the last act’s disheveled cad. He uses his 25-quid May Day prize to get thoroughly loaded, despite the town’s expectations of him as a goody-goody. He can still sing when drunk.

Sanders performed his transformative role with stage-savvy sparkle and athleticism, so onstage he convincingly overcame Albert’s awkwardness. The tenor approached the role as an outsider and misfit—and Britten creates these characters regularly—and he made Albert change and oddly–grow.

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“Charles Dickens Writes ‘A Christmas Carol’” review: Dickens framed

Bag&Baggage Productions’ holiday comedy shows the writer creating his most famous story -- and getting upstaged by it

Charles Dickens was a rock star. On his reading tours in both England and America, fans crowded the venues to hear him read excerpts from his novels, cheered his speeches about social issues.

Charles Dickens was a clown. Yes, the author of The Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield and the rest was also the most popular English language novelist of the 19th century, but he was also known to his friends as a total cutup who loved assuming comic personae and telling uproarious stories, most of which he made up himself.

Charles Dickens was also, therefore, an actor. He liked playing roles so much that he acted in his friends’ plays and even wrote his novels by acting out the various characters in his studio to capture their voices.

Bag & Baggage Productions’ “Charles Dickens Writes ‘A Christmas Carol’ continues through December 23. Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Such an inherently theatrical backstory proved irresistible to Bag & Baggage productions artistic director Scott Palmer, an inveterate historical researcher who in 2010 used Dickens’s life story (drawn from his diary and remembrances by family and contemporaries) to create his original comic take on the Victorian English author’s heartwarming Christmas classic. The revived Charles Dickens Writes “A Christmas Carol” runs through Dec. 23 at The Vault theatre. (The information above comes from the company’s characteristically comprehensive study guide to the play)

Palmer’s adaptation — really an old story within a new play — has the added advantage of doubling the show’s appeal. It presents enough of Dickens’s original 1843 Scrooge story to entertain kids and others who are experiencing the holiday classic for the first time in a long time, or ever, while giving those who know the original by heart get an entirely new story around it. But although the combination makes for a generally entertaining holiday show, that framing narrative resembles one of those massive, Dickens-era Victorian picture frames, so ornate that they sometimes distract from the picture they surround. Even so, the show has so much going for it that it makes an easy holiday recommendation.

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