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, but it was transposed entirely to an English setting.
After having composed and staged The Rape of Lucretia, Britten decided he should attempt a comedy, preferably set in England. Eric 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. Britten composed Albert Herring at his home, The Old Mill at Snape, in the winter of 1946 and the spring of 1947. He scored the opera for the same instrumental forces as 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.
Performance history and reception
The opera was 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'." Just 38 years later Glyndebourne's 1985 production was "one of the most successful the opera has had".
The opera was given its US premiere on 8 August 1949 as part of the Tanglewood Music Festival. 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: an almost complete recording of one of their Copenhagen performances has been commercially released.
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. 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.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere cast, 20 June 1947
(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|
|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|
|Mrs. Herring, Albert's mother||mezzo-soprano||Betsy de la Porte|
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.
It is the day of the festival. Sid and Nancy are preparing the banquet tent, and they take the chance 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). 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, quite drunk. In the street, Sid keeps a date with Nancy, and the two discuss their sympathetic pity for Albert before going off together. This is finally the breaking point for Albert. He takes the prize money and heads out looking for adventure.
The next morning Albert has not returned, and the village is in a panic. Superintendent Budd is leading a 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. Clearly, he is dead. A lengthy threnody of grief is interrupted by the surprise return of Albert. He thanks the Festival Committee for providing him with the cash for 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 kids into the shop to sample some complimentary fruit.
Musical style and character themes
Albert Herring is a musically complex work, despite its somewhat light-hearted subject matter. The text itself is genuinely funny, and there are myriad musical quotations within the score, as well as some complex forms within, despite the light subject matter. 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. Some of Britten's contemporaries saw in the title character a satirical self-portrait of the composer.
Currently, there are five audio recordings of Albert Herring and one DVD recording, with the following artists:
English Opera Group Orchestra
(Live recording of a performance in the Theatre Royal, Copenhagen, on 15 September)
English Chamber Orchestra
Richard Van Allan
London Philharmonic Orchestra
(Video recording of a performance at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera)
Director: Peter Hall
Designer: John Gunter
|Warner Music Vision
Nancy Maria Balach,
Manhattan School of Music Orchestra
Pamela Helen Stephen,
City of London Sinfonia
- Fiona Maddocks, "Queen for a day. And his name's Albert". The Observer, 17 February 2002.
- Nigel Douglas. "Some personal memories of Benjamin Britten, the English Opera Group and Albert Herring". Booklet note to Nimbus NI 5824/6 (2008).
- Kennedy, Michael, "Benjamin Britten", in Holden, p. 124
- Paul Francis Kildea. Britten on Music. Oxford University Press, 2003: p. 92
- Personal diary, published in Bruno Monsaingeon Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations. London: Faber, 2001: p. 292
- Letters from a Life: the Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten, 1913–1976 ed. Philip Reed & Mervyn Cooke. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2010: p. 339.
- Performances from 2011 on Operabase.com Retrieved 20 July 2013
- "Albert Herring performances (Almanacco di Gherardo Casaglia)". AmadeusOnline.net. Retrieved 30 November 2011.
- Dennis Barker,Obituary for Norman Lumsden, The Guardian (London), 5 December 2001
- Tim McDonald, Obituary for Nancy Evans, The Guardian, 24 August 2000
- Tom Service, "Albert Herring" (Glyndebourne review). The Guardian, 22 October 2002
- Michael Kennedy,"Herring stock soars", Telegraph (London), 22 March 1997
- Andrew Clements, "Britten: Albert Herring; Gillett, Bedford et al.", The Guardian, 7 February 2003
- Alfred Hickling, 'It's quite New Labour', The Guardian, 9 February 2002.
- Recordings on operadis-opera-discography.org.uk
- John Quinn (July 2008). "CD review Albert Herring". MusicWeb International. Retrieved 30 November 2011.
- M.K. (June 1989). "CD review Albert Herring". Gramophone. Retrieved 30 November 2011.
- Robert Levine. "CD review Albert Herring". ClassicsToday.com. Retrieved 30 November 2011.
- Recording source on opera-collection.net
- Robert McKechnie (April 2003). "CD review Albert Herring". MusicWeb International. Retrieved 30 November 2011.
- Holden, Amanda (ed.), The New Penguin Opera Guide, New York: Penguin Putnam, 2001. ISBN 0-14-029312-4
- Recordings of Albert Herring on operadis-opera-discography.org.uk
- Whittall, Arnold, "Albert Herring" in Stanley Sadie, (Ed.), The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Vol. One, pp. 54 – 55. London: MacMillan Publishers, Inc. 1998 ISBN 0-333-73432-7 ISBN 1-56159-228-5