Tom Strini
Florentine Opera

Conductor Christopher Larkin returns to Vogel Hall

Larkin, who presided over the Florentine's brilliant Baroque double bill in 2011, will conduct Britten's "Albert Herring." It opens Friday.

By - Mar 7th, 2013 02:25 pm
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Left to Right: Florence Pike – Kathryn Leemhuis; Mr. Gedge, The Vicar – Andrew Wilkowske; Albert – Rodell Rosel; Lady Billows – Kathy Pyeatt; Mr. Upfold, The Mayor – Kevin Newell; Mrs. Herring – Kristen DiNinno; Superintendent Budd – Jamie Offenbach; conducting at lower right, Christopher Larkin. Photo Credit: Kathy Wittman, Ball Square Films.

Christopher Larkin played a key role in Dido and Aeneas and Venus and Adonis, the smashing English Baroque double bill the Florentine Opera staged in May 2011. Larkin conducted a small subset of the Milwaukee Symphony and played the keyboard, and he and the musicians were all but on stage. Spread out the full breadth of it and right up against the apron, they were very much a visual element within the Marcus Center’s intimate Vogel Hall.

Larkin and the Florentine are back with another British opera, of more recent vintage: Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring, a comedy from 1947. Larkin will again play piano and lead an ensemble of 13 players arrayed on the floor directly in front of the stage. (Not coincidentally, the mathematically fastidious Britten matched the orchestra to the 13 singers on the stage.) Larkin rejoins William Florescu, the company’s general director (stage director) and production manager Noele Stollmack (lighting/scenic designer).

Vogel was made for chamber music, not for opera. It lacks an orchestra pit, but Larkin found that to be an advantage.

“The musicians are usually stuck down in the pit,” Larkin said, in an interview Wednesday. “This was fun. They had such a connection to the singers.”

conductor-christopher-larkin-florentine

Christopher Larkin

That might have helped to promote the excellent ensemble Larkin got from a little orchestra strung out single file for at least 30 feet.

Larkin enjoyed being up on deck, too. He is an opera conductor above all, and a man of the theater. He discovered that while in graduate school at Indiana University, which he attended after completing a double major in piano performance and choral conducting at the New England Conservatory in Boston, his home town.

“At Indiana, they did six full productions a year in a state of the art facility,” he said. “I just loved being in the theater, and I loved the way the drama motivates and informs what you do as a musician. Everything starts with text for me, because that’s where the opera composers start.”

Upon exiting Indiana, he could sing, play the piano well and conduct. That made the opera world a natural for him, where he could coach singers and play for rehearsals as well as wave the stick. He had varied duties as assistant chorus master at the San Francisco Opera right out of school, led the New York City Opera touring company for three years, spent three years with the Houston Opera. For some time, now, Larkin, 56, has focused on the freelance career that brought him to Milwaukee. The Florentine, along with companies in Santa Fe, Toronto, Portland, Nashville and, just this winter, Hawaii, keep bringing him back and have come to feel like home away from Larkin’s Montclair, New Jersey, home.

But back to the opera at hand.

Eric Crozier wrote the Albert Herring libretto, after a novella by Guy de Maupassant, with a lot of input from Britten. They set it in a Downton Abbey milieu, in an English country village in 1900. The story involves a scheme to crown a Queen of the May, with a £25 prize to the loveliest chaste girl in the area. When the nominating committee finds that no local girls qualify, they turn to never-been-kissed Albert to be King of the May.

“It’s supposedly loosely based on people from Britten’s neighborhood,” Larkin said of the composer, who grew up in picturesque Suffolk.

The house is small and the opera is in English, so no supertitles for this show. Larkin hopes that the witty words will come through legibly.

“We’re working very hard on diction,” he said.

But even if the words are less than fully intelligible, the action and the music should make the story clear.

“Each of the 13 characters has a catchphrase,” Larkin said. “It’s like theme music for ballplayers when they come to the plate. Key relationships tell you something, too. E-flat and B-flat represent the repressed Albert and the repressed society. E major stands for sexual freedom and enlightenment. In the first scene, Florence Pike, the housekeeper, is singing about the list of girls up for May Queen. At one point, she has this big leap up to E-natural — she’d like to break out of that repressed world.”

You needn’t be a music-theory major to grasp this opera. Such things work on the knowing and the novice alike to convey the feeling and humor of a highly virtuosic work that comesacross as the most natural and expressive speech rhythm.

“The rhythmic complexity, the constantly changing meters have to do with speech rhythm,” Larkin said. “Britten wrote all the expression into the score. If you do exactly what he wrote, the piece will take care of itself.”

Cast and Credits

Rodell Rosel, Albert Herring; Abigail Nims*, Nancy;  Kathy Pyeatt, Lady Billows;  Kathryn Leemhuis*, Florence Pike;  Alisa Suzanne Jordheim†, Miss Wordsworth;  Andrew Wilkowske*, Mr. Gedge, The Vicar;  Kevin Newell†, Mr. Upfold, The Mayor;  Jamie Offenbach, Superintendent Budd;  Kristen DiNinno†, Mrs. Herring;  Carl Frank†, Sid;  William Florescu, Stage Director;  Christopher Larkin, Conductor; Noele Stollmack, Scenic and Lighting Designer; Holly Payne, Costume Designer (*denotes Florentine Opera debut, †denotes Florentine Opera Studio Artist).

Performance Schedule

Vogel Hall, Marcus Center for the Performing Arts
929 N. Water St., Milwaukee, WI

Friday, March 8, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, March 10, 2:30 p.m.
Tuesday, March 12, 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday, March 13, 7:30 p.m.
Friday, March 15, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, March 17, 2:30 p.m.

Ticketing and Ancillary Events

Pre-Opera Meals: The Florentine Opera offers Friday dinners and Sunday lunches prior to weekend performances of Albert Herring. Meals are served at 5:30 p.m. on Fridays (March 8 and 15) and 12:30 p.m. on Sundays (March 10 and 17). General director William Florescu will attend dinners and lunches. The cost is $35. Call 414 291-5700 ext 213 for reservations.

Tickets and Packages: Performance ticket prices start at $30. Hotel and dinner packages available upon request. For more information or to order tickets visit the Florentine website, call 414 291-5700 ext. 224, or call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.

Film Event: The company will host a free film screening of The Hidden Heart, a film about the lives of Benjamin Britten and tenor Peter Pears, at the Wayne and Kristine Lueders Florentine Opera Center, 926 E. Burleigh St. at 7 p.m. March 14.

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