I had never seen Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring until this week at Santa Fe, but now I can understand why people speak of it as the cheerful, good-natured pendant to Britten's darker (and much better known) Peter Grimes. And a worthy companion it is. Light-weight, perhaps, in the sense that Elixir of Love is lightweight; but if you like Britten there is plenty enough here just to kick back and enjoy.
The Santa Fe presentation was well presented and well sung throughout, mostly in the ensemble vein, although when Christine Brewer is in the house, ensemble is out the window--especially when she is cast in a role where she is supposed to be dominating everybody else in town. She's Mapp & Lucia; she's Hyacinth Bucket; she's the "stop! I'll tell!" lady from Music Man, all rolled (I use the word advisedly) into one (dear heaven, is Brewer really that, um, full-figured? Mrs. Buce votes emphatically yes). Anyway, there aren't many other singers who can belt it out against the night sky and expect to get an echo; Brewer, I assume, would be surprised and disappointed if she did not. The thought of Brewer as Isolde is enough to make me go back to Wagner--well, not really, but you get the idea.
I do concur with others that there was something a little crack-brained about staging it in 1947, when it was first presented, rather than back in the 19th Century, as was Britten's original intent. For director Paul Curran, born in 1964, I suppose 1947 is the stone age. But for an opera that depends so much on the theme of sexual innocence, to set it in the turbulent aftermath of World War II as Britain recovered, inter alia, from all those horny GIs, suggested a historical, of not a musical, tin ear: indeed, look around you and you could surmise that some of those ex-horny GIs were with you in the audience here at the show. And the idea of a bountiful public picnic amidst the reality of cruel austerity must have added a note of ironic urgency to the original performance.
I surmise that original Britten fans had the satisfaction of listening to his companion and muse, Peter Pears, do both of these pendant roles, Herring and Grimes. I suppose it's a bit much to expect one singer to do them on adjacent nights, but it would be good fun for a theater to schedule them as a matched set in succeeding seasons (or maybe this is done and I just don't know of it).
Anyway, it's good fun. Probably doesn't bear thinking on too hard, but Britten fans can get satisfaction by just letting it roll.