Ever been praised for something that labeled you a doofus? Perfect attendance? Clean underpants? That's the premise for Benjamin Britten's comic chamber opera Albert Herring, based on a short story by Guy de Maupassant: When a contest for May Queen fails to turn up a single virtuous young lady—they're all hopelessly slutty—civic leaders in the Suffolk town of Loxford settle on a May King instead. Against his will, they select Albert Herring, the only virgin in town, a meek greengrocer in the thrall of his overbearing ma. But his virginity doesn't last long—after unwittingly drinking spiked lemonade at his coronation ceremony, Albert blows his prize money on hookers and booze.

Christopher Mattaliano's Portland Opera production offers a charming and intimate staging of this musical pastiche. Despite a few orchestral shortfalls, the singers bring an excellent comedic sense to Britten's punchy recitatives, and in a few cases give truly accomplished performances.

Unlike its companion piece, Rape of Lucretia, Albert Herring is a comedy, and it's easy for directors to neglect the opera's subtext: the problem of sexuality in Britain. Fortunately, Mattaliano and his cast seem to have got it right. Tenor Brendan Tuohy's Albert strikes a fine balance between humor and pathos. Although his expression is initially underwhelming, Tuohy really cuts loose after a cup of rum lemonade, singing chromatic trills with amazing accuracy.

The chamber orchestra is a little less tuned in to the serious side of the score. It's more than ready for Britten's musical jokes (using a violin like a slide whistle or a bassoon like a whoopee cushion, as well as referencing Verdi and Wagner), but when it comes to the serious stuff—for instance, an extended duet for clarinet and flute in the Act II interlude—it's marking time. Rushed arioso and a wonky horn solo at the beginning of Act II don't help.

Costumes are crisp and conservative. Miss Wordsworth (Sharin Apostolou) and Lady Billows (Brenda Harris) look imperially radiant in crêpe de Chine and brocade silk, respectively. Those two ladies also give the best vocal performances; Harris' dramatic soprano blazes like cannonfire during a patriotic outburst in Act II. It's a delightful show, and it will be funny even to those who don't usually laugh at opera.


Portland Opera Studio Theater, 211 SE Caruthers St., 241-1802. 2 and 7:30 pm, March 20, 24, 26, 28 and 30. $75.