With a cast list that could be from a P.G. Wodehouse novel, Britten’s Albert Herring is equally light, a soufflé of an opera that can rise or fall with the slightest of ease. Britten and his librettist, Eric Crozier, adapted a Guy de Maupassant short story, “Madame Husson’s May King,” but lightened the story to conclude with a more optimistic outlook for the title character. The plot concerns a town’s unsuccessful search for a May Queen, and the subsequent decision to choose a “May King” instead, i.e., Albert Herring, who after being chosen decides to make his escape, and returns a changed and wiser man. This production by the Gotham Chamber Opera was the first professional production in New York in thirty years, and Britten’s piece is ideal for the intimacy of the Harry de Jur Playhouse, a venerable little theater on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Although the opera was written in 1947, director David Schweizer moved the time frame ahead a few years, to postwar Britain in the early 1950s, abetted by designer Riccardo Hernandez and his delightfully claustrophobic jewel box of a set, with a pink and mauve Union Jack design. When Karen Huffstodt made her entrance, in a hilariously prissy turn as Lady Billows, the back of the room opened up to reveal her posed, back to the audience and one arm aloft, as if she were some sort of late-model automobile on display. Huffstodt not only anchored the show and provided much of its humor (“Loxford: a spawning ground of horror!”) but as she amply demonstrated, easily filled the house with her voice. (One of the charms of this venue is that it has just 350 seats. For comparison, the Met has almost 4,000.) Also making a strong impression were Michael Zegarski, in excellent voice as the platitudinous vicar Mr. Gedge, and John Easterlin singing brightly as the Mayor, Mr. Upfold, whose optimistic civic boosterism seems to know no bounds. And for the greengrocer’s shop that first appears in Scene 2, designer Hernandez smartly envisioned huge black-and-white photos with row upon row of jars and cans on shelves, and for a cash register, a giant bottle of Colman’s Mustard.
In Act II the May Day celebration gets into full, riotous swing, with some of Britten’s most enticing music – the opera is full of fresh, beautifully scored set pieces – as Albert’s friends Sid and Nancy (strongly sung by Timothy Kuhn and Leah Wool) spike his lemonade with rum and sit back to watch the fun. As Albert, Matt Morgan was a bespectacled look-alike for Matthew Broderick in a constant state of embarrassment or surprise, and should receive praise for some sweet and characterful singing, while changing from a vulnerable gosling to a more defiant adult. And as the three children, Cara Fesjian, Madeline Weinstein and Peter Goldsmith (all of the Met Children’s Chorus) gave singing confident beyond their years, coupled with wide-eyed charm.
As Albert’s mother, the humorous Barbara Dever reminded me somewhat of actress Tyne Daly, albeit with even more vocal chops. The sonorous Eric Jordan was appropriately stentorian as the police superintendent, and Jeanine Thames offered excellent articulation and projection as Miss Wordsworth. Elizabeth Grohowski struck just the right note as Florence Pike, the Lady’s anxiety-ridden housekeeper who tries to keep one step ahead of her employer’s peculiarities, while sharing some of her own as she advises, “No more poppies in altar vases – looks too Roman.”
In Act III there is more humor in store as the town grieves for what they perceive as a possibly dead Albert, only to have him suddenly reappear after an apparent night of debauchery. Despite the stern reactions from his fellow citizens, Albert emerges from the experience sporting new confidence and self-esteem. (In the original story, Albert becomes a drunk and spends the rest of his life wandering the streets.)
The evening flowed right along until Act II, Scene 2 when Albert finally arrives back home in an inebriated state. The scenes that followed, with the cast lamenting his disappearance, somehow needed more pep, and the lighthearted tone so well captured in the beginning seemed absent. I still wonder if this might not be the fault of the piece itself, since for such piffle of a subject it runs on at about three hours – a bit of a stretch at odds with the overall lightness. But there is plenty to enjoy in the score, penned in just months and here, deftly conducted by Neal Goren, who is also the Gotham’s artistic director. Crozier’s libretto is about as clever as one could want, filled with Sondheim-ian rhymes like “indispensable, indefensible, and sensible” – now there’s poetry for you.