Albert Herring

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Albert Herring, Op. 39, is a chamber opera in three acts by Benjamin Britten.

Composed in the winter of 1946 and the spring of 1947, this comic opera was a successor to his serious opera The Rape of Lucretia. The libretto, by Eric Crozier, was based on Guy de Maupassant's novella Le Rosier de Madame Husson, with the action transposed to an English setting.[1]

Composition history[edit]

After having composed and staged The Rape of Lucretia, Britten decided he should attempt a comedy, preferably set in England.[2] Crozier suggested adapting the Maupassant short story Le rosier de Madame Husson and transplanting it to the Suffolk landscape already familiar to Britten from his home in Snape.[2] Britten composed Albert Herring at his home, The Old Mill at Snape, in the winter of 1946 and the spring of 1947.[2] He scored the opera for the same instrumental forces he had used in his first chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia, intending it like the earlier opera for performance by the English Opera Group.[2]

Performance history and reception[edit]

The opera premiered on 20 June 1947 at Glyndebourne, conducted by the composer. According to one writer, the owner and founder of Glyndebourne, John Christie, "disliked it intensely and is said to have greeted members of the first night audience with the words: 'This isn't our kind of thing, you know'."[3] Some 38 years later Glyndebourne's 1985 production was "one of the most successful the opera has had".[3]

The opera received its U.S. premiere on 8 August 1949 at the Tanglewood Music Festival.[3] In 1949, Britten's English Opera Group toured with both Rape of Lucretia and Albert Herring, giving ten performances between 12–23 September in Copenhagen and Oslo.[4] An almost complete recording of one of the Copenhagen performances has been released commercially.

Sviatoslav Richter called it "the greatest comic opera of the century"[5] and in 1983 staged Albert Herring as part of the December Nights Festival at Moscow's Pushkin Museum.[6]

The opera was performed at Buenos Aires's Teatro Colón in 1972. In 2008–2010, over 55 performances were given by companies such as those at Glyndebourne and the Portland Opera in Oregon (2008 season); the Opéra-Comique in Paris and the Opéra de Normandie in Rouen (2009);and, for 2010, at the Landestheater in Linz, the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki and the Santa Fe Opera.[7] The Santa Fe production was given by the Los Angeles Opera in 2011. Vancouver Opera presented the work, in a co-production with Pacific Opera Victoria, in 2013.

Australian television aired a live performance in 1959.[8]

Roles[edit]

Role Voice type Premiere cast, 20 June 1947[9]
(Conductor: Benjamin Britten)
Lady Billows, an elderly autocrat soprano Joan Cross
Florence Pike, her housekeeper contralto Gladys Parr
Miss Wordsworth, a schoolteacher soprano Margaret Ritchie
Mr. Gedge, the vicar baritone William Parsons
Mr. Upfold, the mayor tenor Roy Ashton
Superintendent Budd bass Norman Lumsden[10]
Sid, a butcher's assistant baritone Frederick Sharp
Albert Herring, from the greengrocer's tenor Peter Pears
Nancy, from the bakery mezzo-soprano Nancy Evans[11]
Mrs. Herring, Albert's mother mezzo-soprano Betsy de la Porte
Emmie soprano Lesley Duff
Cis soprano Anne Sharp
Harry treble David Spenser

Synopsis[edit]

Time: April and May 1900
Place: Loxford, a small market town in East Suffolk, England

Act 1[edit]

Housekeeper Florence Pike is run ragged. Her mistress Lady Billows is organising the annual May Day festival and has gathered all the important people of the village to vet nominees for the coveted position of Queen of the May. But Florence has dug up dirt on every single girl nominated, proving that none is worthy to wear the May Queen's crown. Lady Billows is depressed. Superintendent Budd suggests that the solution may be to select, this year, a May King instead of a May Queen. He knows of a young man in town who is as certainly virginal as the girls are not: Albert Herring.

At the greengrocer's, Albert is teased for his timidity by the easygoing Sid. Sid's girlfriend Nancy comes in to do some shopping, and the couple shares a tender moment while Albert eats his heart out. The lovers leave, and Albert reflects on his miserable existence under his mother's thumb. The Festival Committee arrives with the news of his selection as May King. Mrs. Herring is thrilled, Albert less so. Mother and son quarrel, to the mocking commentary of the village children.

Act 2[edit]

It is the day of the festival. Sid and Nancy are preparing the banquet tent, and they take the opportunity to slip some rum into Albert's lemonade glass. Albert is tongue-tied at the feast in his honour, but drinks his lemonade greedily (which Britten satirically illustrates with a quote from Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde).[12] Together with his crown of flowers and the gruesome but improving Foxe's The Book of Martyrs, he is awarded twenty-five pounds in prize money.

That night, Albert arrives home alone and quite drunk. In the street, Sid keeps a rendezvous with Nancy, and the two discuss their sympathetic pity for Albert before going off together. This is the breaking point for Albert. He takes the prize money and heads out looking for adventure.

Act 3[edit]

The next morning Albert has not returned, and the village is in a panic. Superintendent Budd is leading the search, while the guilt-stricken Nancy tends to Mrs. Herring. A boy shouts that a "Big White Something" has been found in a well, and the village worthies file in to break the news en masse that Albert's crown of flowers has been discovered, crushed by a cart. A lengthy threnody of grief follows, but is interrupted by the surprise return of Albert. He thanks the Festival Committee for funding his night out. They, in turn, are outraged by his tale of drunken debauchery and leave in a huff. Albert finally stands up to his mother and invites the village children into the shop to enjoy some fruit at his expense.

Musical style and character themes[edit]

Albert Herring is a musically complex work, despite its somewhat light-hearted subject matter. The text is genuinely humorous, and the score, while matching the text in character, includes myriad musical quotations as well as some complex forms. Like Peter Grimes and other works by Britten, this opera explores society's reaction to an odd individual, although, in this case at least, it is from a generally humorous and lighthearted perspective.[13][14] Some of Britten's contemporaries saw in the title character a satirical self-portrait of the composer.[15]

Recordings[edit]

There are five audio recordings of Albert Herring and one DVD recording, with the following artists:

Year Cast:
(Albert,
Lady Billows,
Sid,
Nancy,
Mrs Herring,
Florence Pike,
Miss Wordsworth,
Mr Gedge,
Mr Upfold,
Superintendent Budd)
Conductor,
Orchestra,
Notes
Label,
Cat. No.,
Year (re)issued[16]
1949 Peter Pears*,
Joan Cross*,
Denis Dowling,
Nancy Evans*,
Catherine Lawson,
Gladys Parr*,
Margaret Ritchie*,
Otakar Kraus,
Roy Ashton*,
Norman Lumsden*
Benjamin Britten,
English Opera Group Orchestra
(Live recording of a performance in the Theatre Royal, Copenhagen, on 15 September)
  • Members of the original cast.
Nimbus
NI 5824/6
(2008)[17]
1964 Peter Pears,
Sylvia Fisher,
Joseph Ward,
Catherine Wilson,
Sheila Rex,
Johanna Peters,
April Cantelo,
John Noble,
Edgar Evans,
Owen Brannigan
Benjamin Britten,
English Chamber Orchestra
Decca
421,849–2
(1989)[18]
1985 John Graham-Hall,
Patricia Johnson,
Alan Opie,
Jean Rigby,
Patricia Kern,
Felicity Palmer,
Elizabeth Gale,
Derek Hammond-Stroud,
Alexander Oliver,
Richard Van Allan
Bernard Haitink,
London Philharmonic Orchestra
(Video recording of a performance at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera)
Director: Peter Hall
Designer: John Gunter
Warner Music Vision
5046 78790-2
1996 Christopher Gillett,
Josephine Barstow,
Gerald Finley,
Ann Taylor,
Della Jones,
Felicity Palmer,
Susan Gritton,
Peter Savidge,
Stuart Kale,
Robert Lloyd
Steuart Bedford,
Northern Sinfonia
Naxos Records
8.660170/8
(2003)[19]
1996 Christopher Pfund,
Kirsten Dickerson,
Samuel Hepler,
Nancy Maria Balach,
Barbara Kokolus,
Tara Venditti,
Lynette Binford,
Scott Bearden,
James Powell,
Scott Altman
David Gilbert,
Manhattan School of Music Orchestra
Vox Records
VXP2 7900
[20]
2001 James Gilchrist,
Susan Bullock,
Roderick Williams,
Pamela Helen Stephen,
Anne Collins,
Sally Burgess,
Rebecca Evans,
Alan Opie,
Robert Tear,
Stephen Richardson
Richard Hickox,
City of London Sinfonia
Chandos
CHAN 10036
(2003)[21]

References[edit]

Notes

  1. ^ Fiona Maddocks, "Queen for a day. And his name's Albert". The Observer, 17 February 2002.
  2. ^ a b c d Nigel Douglas. "Some personal memories of Benjamin Britten, the English Opera Group and Albert Herring". Booklet note to Nimbus NI 5824/6 (2008).
  3. ^ a b c Kennedy, Michael, "Benjamin Britten", in Holden, p. 124
  4. ^ Paul Francis Kildea. Britten on Music. Oxford University Press, 2003: p. 92
  5. ^ Personal diary, published in Bruno Monsaingeon Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations. London: Faber, 2001: p. 292
  6. ^ Letters from a Life: the Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten, Vol. 5 1958-65 ed. Philip Reed & Mervyn Cooke. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2010: p. 339.
  7. ^ Performances from 2011 on Operabase.com Retrieved 20 July 2013
  8. ^ Albert Herring presented on television on 28 October 1959
  9. ^ Britten, Benjamin; Donald Mitchell (ed) (2004). Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten, Volume III, 1946–1951. London: Faber and Faber. ISBN 057122282X. , p. 293
  10. ^ Dennis Barker,Obituary for Norman Lumsden, The Guardian (London), 5 December 2001
  11. ^ Tim McDonald, Obituary for Nancy Evans, The Guardian, 24 August 2000
  12. ^ Tom Service, "Albert Herring" (Glyndebourne review). The Guardian, 22 October 2002
  13. ^ Michael Kennedy,"Herring stock soars", Telegraph (London), 22 March 1997
  14. ^ Andrew Clements, "Britten: Albert Herring; Gillett, Bedford et al.", The Guardian, 7 February 2003
  15. ^ Alfred Hickling, 'It's quite New Labour', The Guardian, 9 February 2002.
  16. ^ Recordings on operadis-opera-discography.org.uk
  17. ^ John Quinn (July 2008). "CD review Albert Herring". MusicWeb International. Retrieved 30 November 2011. 
  18. ^ M.K. (June 1989). "Britten Albert Herring". Gramophone. Retrieved 25 July 2014. 
  19. ^ Robert Levine. "CD review Albert Herring". ClassicsToday.com. Retrieved 30 November 2011. 
  20. ^ Recording source on opera-collection.net
  21. ^ Robert McKechnie (April 2003). "CD review Albert Herring". MusicWeb International. Retrieved 30 November 2011. 

Additional sources