Listening to Britten – Albert Herring, Op.39


Act 2 scene 1, the May Day Festival; Miss Wordsworth (Margaret Ritchie) leads the children in a song of praise to the virtuous Albert, King of the May Photograph by Angus McBean. © Harvard Theatre Collection

Albert Herring, Op.39 – A comic opera in three acts, Op.39 (December 1946 – April 1947, Britten aged 33)

Dedication dedicated to E.M. Forster, in admiration
Text Eric Crozier, freely adapted from a short story by Guy de Maupassant
Language English
Duration 137′

Audio and Video clips

The entire opera can be watched in this Glyndebourne Festival production, with a cast including John Graham-Hall (Albert), Patricia Johnson (Lady Billows), Alan Opie (Sid), Felicity Palmer (Nancy) and Jean Rigby (Mrs Herring), with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink.

Selected clips from the recording made by Benjamin Britten for Decca with Dame Janet Baker in the title role. With thanks to Decca.

Act 1
Flor-ence! tell the midwife! (Lady Billows, Florence Pike)

Right! We’ll have him! (ensemble)

Interlude (orchestra)

Shop! Hi! Albert! (Sid, Albert)

Meet me at a quarter past eight (Sid, Nancy, Albert)

We bring great news to you (Ensemble)

Isn’t he here? (Ensemble)

Act 2
I’m full of happiness (Lady Billows)

My heart leaps up with joy (Miss Wordsworth)

Well tried, Albert! (ensemble)

Interlude (orchestra)

Albert the Good! (Albert)

Heaven helps those who help themselves! (Albert)

Act 3
Give me a decent murder with a corpse! (Superintendent)

In the midst of life is death (Ensemble)

I’m sorry about that

I can’t remember everything (Albert)

Albert’s come back to stay (Ensemble)

Background and Critical Reception

With almost indecent speed, Britten left little less than a year between the staging of The Rape of Lucretia at Glyndebourne in June 1946 and the premiere of Albert Herring in the same opera house on 20 June 1947.

A lot had changed in that time, as Claire Seymour details in her chapter on Albert Herring in a new book, The Operas of Benjamin Britten. Lucretia made huge losses, totalling £14,000, so Glyndebourne were unwilling to commit to more. Britten and Pears therefore made a break to set up the English Opera Group independently, and Albert Herring was their first production. It also opened the first Aldeburgh Festival, the following year. Seymour also notes how Britten’s short attention span with librettists had led him from Montagu Slater through Ronald Duncan to Eric Crozier, and that the English Opera Group wasted little time in building an air of exclusivity, of which some creative figures and critics were increasingly wary.

Michael Kennedy, in his booklet notes for the recording conducted by Richard Hickox on Chandos, details how Britten gave Crozier the libretto for Verdi’s Falstaff as a model when he was writing. The two added extra spice to the story by introducing caricatures of local personalities and family. Albert himself was named after a grocer from Tunstall, while Lady Billows was the mother-in-law of Britten’s sister, Beth.

The story is a classic English farce, set in the only slightly fictional village of Loxford, the parallels with Suffolk abundantly clear. The locals are introduced – an elderly autocrat (Lady Billows), her housekeeper (Florence), the baker’s daughter (Nancy), the butcher’s assistant (Sid) and the local vicar. It is approaching the merry month of May, but the townsfolk cannot find a suitable May Queen. However the Superintendent Budd suggests they nominate a May King. He is a virtuous member of the community, a greengrocer’s son, but is completely under the iron rule of his mother. This, of course, is Albert Herring. There is general delight at this idea, whereupon at the crowning and celebrations a local couple, Sid and Nancy, spike Albert’s celebratory lemonade with rum to ‘help him on his way’.

This proves rather too effective, for he disappears overnight, spending some of his prize money on drink and other unspecified pleasures. This is the meat of the opera’s message, for Albert – as we might put it now – has been on a massive bender. The next morning he is nowhere to be seen, and on discovery of his floral headdress the townsfolk presume him dead and go into mourning. Yet as their grief threatens to run out of control Albert returns out of the blue, slightly bashful but free of the apron strings of his controlling mother. Then the townsfolk are curious to see him back and want to know everything about where he’s been, what he’s been doing, and how much prize money he’s spent. Ultimately they turn their backs, but the rejuvenated Albert cares rather less than before.

Seymour talks of Albert Herring as ‘a comic companion piece to Lucretia, premiered by the same singers and instrumentalist’, but notes also that the ‘patronising tone of much of the text…contributed to the opera’s negative critical reception’. Ernest Newman wrote of the ‘danger of a first class opera talent going partly to waste because of a failure to find the right libretto’. Yet Michael Oliver senses the building of Albert’s character. ‘Slowly, in a series of three monologues, he demonstrates not an unexpected strength of character but a simple creature discovering himself, and not altogether liking what he finds.’

John Bridcut finds much to enjoy. ‘This is one of Britten’s most inventive scores, a delight for performers and audiences alike, and in its way a musical miracle’. For Humphrey Carpenter, Albert Herring is ‘a re-run of Peter Grimes with a different twist…and ‘Loxford society, headed by Lady Billows, is in many respects the Borough once again’.

The crucial difference here, of course, is that rarity in Britten operas – a happy ending!

Thoughts

Albert Herring does indeed pick up where The Rape of Lucretia left off. It has very similar performing forces, and it begins in the same key in which Lucretia ultimately left us, C major. However that is emphatically where the similarity ends between the two. For this is Britten’s one true comedy opera, the light to Lucretia‘s darkness.

That much is true from the start, the reckless instrumental accompaniment helping introduce the folk of Loxford, and the unforced jollity of the community as they look towards May Day, reaching ecstatic heights of excitement as they inform Albert – who is ‘sick and tired of being ordered about!’ – that he is about to be crowned as May king. There are, as Carpenter says, similarities to the Borough of Peter Grimes, but this is the lighter side of village gossip for now. The characters make themselves known through brisk recitatives and gaudy semi-arias, often singing much higher than we have heard in both previous operas, females especially.

A touching side-plot is the burgeoning love story between Sid and Nancy, who play as big a part as any character in bringing Albert out of his shell. Their duets are sweet-natured and genuine, red-faced and full of the joys of early love.

There are similarities to Gilbert and Sullivan in Britten’s use of humour, and again forbears of musicals such as My Fair Lady in some of the musical language. For Albert Herring has some particularly amusing moments. I laughed out loud to hear Florence’s indignant exclamation ‘punctured my bike!’, as she becomes appalled at Sid’s excuse for lateness early in Act 2, or the episode when preparations for the celebrations are underway and the children are admiring all the food put out for Albert’s arrival. Listing rich food in the middle of a period of great austerity for the country would have been pushing it a bit! Perhaps even better is their attempts at singing in praise of Albert (‘Glory to our new May King’) which end up as a clear parody of the well-loved carol Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. When they eventually get it right, to the accompaniment of bell ringing, the sound is pure ceremony.

There are also typical incidences of Britten’s attention to detail in the way he paints the scene around the characters. These are lovely touches such as the scoring when Miss Wordsworth sings ‘my heart leaps up with joy to see’ in Act 1, or the palpable hangover that Britten gives to the laboured music when Albert appears, worse for wear, at the start of Act 3. Pears’ intonation is brilliant here, as he moves around the stereo picture in Britten’s Decca recording. The laments of the townsfolk when they suspect Albert’s death are profound, leading to the rather humble In the midst of life is death, a strange premonition of the Lacrimosa of the War Requiem, before it becomes twisted and over-exaggerated grief.

The opera itself ends rather abruptly, Albert’s reappearance and back-turning a show of character that does not seem to be fully celebrated.

Despite this, Albert Herring is a welcome bit of light relief after the raw intensity of Peter Grimes and The Rape of Lucretia. As with many of the best comic works, if you probe a little deeper there are profound moral messages here, but on this occasion you can choose whether or not to take them on board.

As with Peter Grimes, a word of warning – listen to those high and excitable female voices in the wrong mood and you might need the aspirin sooner than you think!

Recordings used

CD

Peter Pears (Albert), Joan Cross (Lady Billows), Denis Dowling (Sid), Nancy Evans (Nancy), Catherine Lawson (Mrs Herring), English Opera Group Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Live recording of a performance in the Theatre Royal, Copenhagen, on 15 September 1949) (Nimbus)

Peter Pears (Albert), Sylvia Fisher (Lady Billows), Joseph Ward (Sid), Catherine Wilson (Nancy), Sheila Rex (Mrs Herring), English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)

James Gilchrist (Albert), Susan Bullock (Lady Billows), Roderick Williams (Sid), Pamela Helen Stephen (Nancy), Anne Collins (Mrs Herring), City of London Sinfonia / Richard Hickox (Chandos)

Albert Herring has a relatively small but very well-formed discography. At its heart are two recordings conducted by the composer. The later one, for Decca, is characteristically vibrant, full of instrumental colour and realistic stage placings that become especially clear on headphones.

A recent and very valuable addition comes from Nimbus, who issued in 2008 a recording of Britten conducting a live performance in Copenhagen with much of the original cast. It is a lot of fun, with plenty of audience laughter, and the sound – though inevitably patchy – stands up remarkably well.

Richard Hickox oversees an extremely fine version on Chandos, with a youthful James Gilchrist ideally cast in the title role, with strong support from Pamela Helen Stephen, Roderick Williams, Susan Bullock and a crack instrumental team. It is the digital choice – but of course Britten’s is the one to hear, with Pears bringing a real depth and gravitas to Herring as his personality develops.

Spotify

Four productions of Albert Herring can be found on Spotify. Britten’s Decca recording can be accessed here, while the Richard Hickox recording for Chandos is here. Steuart Bedford presides over an incredibly good value budget version here while Britten’s first recording, made in Holland, is available

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3 Responses to Listening to Britten – Albert Herring, Op.39

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Saint Nicolas, Op.42 | Good Morning Britten

  2. Pingback: Listening to Britten – The Beggar’s Opera, Op.43 | Good Morning Britten

  3. Pingback: Britten on Record: Haydn: Symphony no.45 in F sharp minor, ‘Farewell’ | Good Morning Britten

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