… but rather Albert Herring, by Benjamin Britten. This year’s Summer Opera from St Paul’s Opera Company, Clapham. Last night was the ‘Insight’ evening, designed to introduce the opera to those who may not know it and to stimulate discussion among those who did. I learned a lot.
Our guide was Christopher Wintle, emeritus member of King’s College, London and one of the leading authorities on the works of Benjamin Britten. He talked us through the genesis of the opera and it’s journey to full performance at Glyndebourne on 20 June 1947. It was the librettist, Eric Crozier who suggested to Britten that he base his new work on a Guy de Maupassant story Le Rosier de Madam Husson, but set it in the Suffolk which Britten knew well. Britten had already decided to write a comedy, after having written his serious piece The Rape of Lucretia. Albert Herring a chamber opera in three acts, was the result.
The opera examines the social attitudes and foibles in a small Suffolk village as Albert is crowned King of the May ( the village having failed to find a May Queen, because of an apparent lack of virtuous maidens ). Characters range from Lady Billows, lady of the manor, to her housekeeper Florence Pike. The obviously virginal Albert works at the greengrocer’s and is befriended by butcher Sid and his girlfriend, Nancy. The language is colloquial and sometimes earthy, as the hen-pecked Albert, permanently under the thumb of his mother, decides to kick over the traces ( with a little help from a nip of something strong slipped into his drink by Sid ). Off he heads, with his prize money, for a night of drink and debauchery.
The following morning, with Albert missing, the villagers discover his May crown in the well and everyone is thrown into mourning. In its midst Albert turns up, rather the worse for wear and thanks the village committee for funding his night of pleasure. All are, needless to say, outraged, but Albert carries it off, standing up to his mother in the process. The opera was an immediate success, receiving performances in the U.S., Copenhagen, Oslo and Moscow. It has since been performed all over the world.
The subject is humorous and light-hearted, but the music is complex and Britten includes references to various other works, including Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. We were treated to a selection of songs, sung by Natasha Elliott (Florence), Rosalind O’Dowd (Lady Billows), Megan Baker (Nancy) and Hugh Benson (Albert Herring) and then a very interesting round table discussion between Christopher Wintle, Panaretos Kyriatzidis (musical director of St Paul’s Opera) and Annemiek van Elst (Director of Albert Herring) facilitated by Jonathan Boardman. The evening closed with questions from the audience (which could have gone on for far longer ). Sadly, dusk had well and truly fallen and the evening drew to a close.
St Paul’s Opera Summer performances of Albert Herring will take place at St Paul’s, Clapham from 7 – 9th July. Come along and picnic first in the delightful grounds. Opera tickets £18 – £30, picnic tables £5 – £10.