Like most of Britten’s works for the stage, Albert Herring is a chamber opera designed to be performed by a small cast and a minimal orchestra in an intimate space. It was something of a staple at New York City Opera in the 1960’s and 70’s, where, as I recall, it had no trouble filling up the inhospitable State Theater with its bustle and charm. But it hasn’t been seen hereabouts for 30 years, until its current revival by the Gotham Chamber Opera at the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side. Once again, this resourceful company has unearthed and polished to a fine shine a relatively obscure operatic treasure. The Gotham’s artistic director, Neal Goren, leads a vibrant and thoroughly knowing performance onstage and in the pit, where he conducts a 14-piece orchestra.
The company’s Albert Herring is a must-see for people (like me) who find increasing emotional richness in the music of the most insinuating—as opposed to ingratiating—opera composer of the last century. And yet it’s not an easy night at the opera. Britten remarked that he wrote “music, now, in Aldeburgh, for people living there, and further afield, indeed for anyone who cares to play it or listen to it.” Coming after the more spacious concerns of Grimes and Lucretia, Albert Herring applies that let’s-put-on-a-show mentality to a fault. Britten didn’t invite music critics to the opening night at Glyndebourne, as though their worldliness would corrupt the innocence of his village comedy.
On this opening night, the Gotham company, directed by David Schweizer, threw innocence to the wind in favor of a cartoonish bluntness that had all the subtlety of a valentine from one of the ruder Internet sites. The décor for Lady Billows’ breakfast room, as conceived by scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez, was a stage-wide Union Jack of white stripes against a background of shocking pink. To me, the color suggested less the bucolic sweetness of a May Festival than the triangular patches worn by homosexuals rounded up and gassed by the Nazis—a not-so-subliminal reference, perhaps, to the stigma that Britten endured for feeling “the love that dares not speak its name.”
With the exception of a wonderful trio of children from the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus (Cara Fesjian, Madeline Weinstein and Peter Goldsmith)—and also Timothy Kuhn and Leah Wool as a sweetly affecting Sid and Nancy—the well-trained young cast belted out the arias and ensembles with a gusto that had me checking for the exit signs. As my ears were being pinned back by the take-no-prisoners Lady Billows of Karen Huffstodt, I glanced at the artists’ biographies and wasn’t surprised to read that she has sung Turandot, Elektra, and Brünnhilde in international houses 10 times the size of the 350-seat Harry de Jur Playhouse. In the title role, Matt Morgan was costumed like Harold Lloyd in The Freshman—a wide-eyed ninny in knee-pants. Somehow, a winning sturdiness of spirit finally shone through the caricature, just in time for him to demonstrate his liberation by tossing the May Day crown into the audience.
The real source of my discomfort wasn’t the excesses of the production, but rather the work itself. The precocious Britten was still in his early 30’s when he wrote Albert Herring; he was just entering his most effulgent phase. As the satire piles up and the plot creaks to its tendentious conclusion, the score mounts with an invention that far exceeds what it’s being inventive about. While the errant lad is out on the town, Nancy and Sid and the elders sing a threnody on the assumption that poor Albert is dead. Their nine-voice lament, written over a throbbing ostinato, is one of the most magnificent vocal ensemble pieces that Britten—a master of choral effects—ever wrote. It was presumably intended to show that even the most bourgeois among us are capable of expressing real feeling (though not for long). But what it really shows is that the music Britten composed for his village comedy was, in its startling sophistication, more than this “innocent” little vehicle could bear.