There is an element of cruelty in much — some would say all — humor, and Benjamin Britten's 1947 comic opera "Albert Herring" presents a particularly fascinating case. Much is made of the contrast between this work, based on a short story by de Maupassant, and the weightier, more portentous operas for which Britten is better known, but there are also similarities.
"Albert Herring," like, say, "Peter Grimes" and "Billy Budd," takes as its central theme the outsider, a subject close to Britten's own experience as a homosexual in an intolerant society. But in contrast to the nuanced treatment accorded the antiheroes of those serious works, Albert is essentially made a caricature ("a plaster cast of the village simpleton," in one character's words) and mercilessly ridiculed as much by Britten and his librettist, Eric Crozier, as by the figures around him.
Or so it seemed in the slick production presented by the Gotham Chamber Opera at the Harry de Jur Playhouse on Thursday evening. David Schweizer directed, broadly, and Matt Morgan played Albert as kin to Murphy Brown's overmatched boss, Miles Silverberg, able to sustain a googly-eyed look of panic through virtually the entire scene of his coronation as the May King, until his rum-laced lemonade produces googly-eyed delirium.
Well, and there you have the plot. For want of a young woman virtuous enough to be named May Queen of Loxford, a fictional English village, the painfully innocent and hopelessly awkward Albert is chosen to stand in. But seduced by demon rum, surreptitiously supplied by young "friends," he sheds his innocence literally overnight, gaining in the process a small measure of independence from his smothering mother.
This wisp of a tale plays out over three acts, made to seem longer here by the staging, framed in shades of pink, with several props also in pink: altogether too much pink. (I thought for a moment that a fourth act was looming the next morning when I opened a newspaper to a pink advertisement for "The Pink Panther," reading, "Think Pink.") The other props were effective in their austerity and unexpectedly satisfying in their grayness.
Musically, the production was strong, with voices almost too strong at times for the small theater. Karen Huffstodt was suitably windy and overbearing as Lady Billows. Mr. Morgan's Albert was quavery or stolid, as appropriate. Jeanine Thames, as Miss Wordsworth, and John Easterlin, as the Mayor, had especially fine moments in a solid ensemble cast that also included Elizabeth Grohowski, Michael Zegarski, Eric Jordan, Timothy Kuhn, Leah Wool and Barbara Dever.
Neal Goren, the company's artistic director, and 15 fine instrumentalists make the most of Britten's witty, incisive and brilliant orchestration — so much compositional and interpretive talent at the service of blunt satire that isn't always worthy of it.