So far away and yet so close.
Audiences aren't allowed into Minnesota Opera's new production of Benjamin Britten's comic opera "Albert Herring." And the social distancing goes beyond that: The performers didn't even get within 4 feet of each other, and couldn't sing directly at one another from any closer than 12 feet.
And yet this online-only production is quite a success, thanks in large part to creative camera work. If you've ever experienced an opera from the top balcony, this is the opposite extreme — the faces of performers filling your screen as they give voice to this satirical and somewhat silly tale of a naive innocent who becomes the toast of the town.
Filmed at St. Paul's Ordway Center and streaming for free at mnopera.org through June 5, this is Minnesota Opera's first full-scale staging since COVID-19 wiped out the end of its 2019-20 season and everything originally slated for 2020-21.
As filmed operas go, this is a particularly clever presentation. In its (mostly) single-shot style — the camera operator winding through the theater and about the stage — it's reminiscent of the 2014 Oscar-winning film "Birdman," or Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope," for you classic film buffs.
Hence, those watching at home are unlikely to notice those social distancing dictates. The approach is particularly effective when the singers form quartets or sextets, and the camera moves from one to another, briefly leaping onto each character's train of thought.
The story they tell is of a circa 1900 English village so wound up in Victorian social convention that gasps and huffs of shock and dismay are the town soundtrack. Its most influential aristocrat is Lady Billows, who delegates to her maid the daily duty of expressing disapproval for whatever her lady has encountered, and gleaning gossip for the purpose of distributing shame.
When town leaders assemble at her house and have all of their candidates for queen of a May Day festival dismissed for insufficient moral fiber, they turn to the idea of having a king instead, nominating the town's shy, sheltered grocer, Albert Herring. But a butcher and his girlfriend hatch a plot to liberate Albert with the help of some spiked lemonade.
Minnesota Opera pulled off quite a coup, bringing aboard a top Britten interpreter in English conductor Jane Glover (now Dame Jane Glover, as Queen Elizabeth declared her at a New Year's ceremony). Although the orchestra only consists of 13 instrumentalists, they create a crisp, high-energy sound. And Glover looms over the proceedings more than metaphorically: She directs from the back of the stage, often framed by windows and captured on screens onstage and off.
Director Doug Scholz-Carlson has done fine work in not only executing such an ambitious staging, but in helping mold intimate, camera-friendly performances from singers more accustomed to doing things on a larger scale. One who seems to eat it up is tenor David Portillo in the title role, his earnest eyes conveying a becoming vulnerability.
But the whole cast is strong, with soprano Ellie Dehn bringing a surprisingly suave slinkiness to Lady Billows and Victoria Vargas ultra-Victorian as her perpetually scornful maid. One to watch is baritone Aaron Keeney, whose robust low register helps make the tattooed young butcher an intriguing scamp.
Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music critic. • email@example.com
Who: Music by Benjamin Britten, libretto by Eric Crozier. Conducted by Jane Glover. Directed by Doug Scholz-Carlson.
Where: Streaming for free at mnopera.org through June 5.