lA Opera doesn’t mess around when it comes to celebrating the upcoming centennial of Benjamin Britten’s birth next year. Rather than another “Peter Grimes” or “Billy Budd,” they’ve gone with “The Turn of the Screw” and now the even more seldomly performed “Albert Herring.” The chamber opera is a near-perfect melding of music, words and story. But who could have guessed that the Republican primary’s reigniting of the culture wars has turned Britten’s sexually obsessed villainess into a stand-in for Rick Santorum?
Lady Billows (Janis Kelly) can’t find a suitably virginal girl for the annual spring festival, so resorts to picking a young man, Albert Herring (Alek Shrader), to be the May King. Britten wrote the opera in 1947 — long before the invention of the Pill or the birth of either Santorum or Judd Apatow, whose “40-Year-Old Virgin” owes much to this tale. Herring, like the movies’ Andy nerd after him, knows that his virtue has nothing to do with goodness and everything to do with repression. And just like Apatow’s hero, he can’t wait to be rid of his virginity, as well as self-righteous do-gooders like Lady Billows. His salvation is a coronation cocktail (lemonade surreptitiously laced with rum) given to him by a horny young couple known as Sid and Nancy (no relation to the latter-day punksters), brilliantly sung and acted by Liam Bonner and Daniela Mack.
Britten kept his vision small. He offered no chorus, but the few villagers he did give us are enough to make anyone, virgin or not, want to leave town. Broadway impresarios take note: Opera director Paul Curran knows how to delineate each character for maximum comic effect. Also, Britten’s 13-piece orchestra under James Conlon’s expert baton bristles with excitement and sounds twice the size of the largest Broadway band. In a rare but well-deserved move, those players took a final bow on stage with the singers.