Opera Scotland

Albert Herring

Music
Benjamin Britten (born Lowestoft, 22 November 1913; died Aldeburgh, 4 December 1976)

Text
Eric Crozier

Source
Short story Le rosier de Madame Husson (1888) by Guy de Maupassant (1850-93).

Premières
First performance: Glyndebourne, 20 June 1947.
First performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (King’s Theatre), 31 August 1965 (perhaps earlier).
Scottish Opera première: Perth (Theatre), 11 April 1966.

Background
Following the success of The Rape of Lucretia, the newly formed English Opera Group required another piece using similar orchestral forces but contrasting in character from the almost unrelieved gloom of that tragedy. A comedy set in rural Suffolk also had the advantage of showing the people of that county in a better light that the mean-spirited villagers of Peter Grimes. The Maupassant story transplants easily to a late-Victorian English setting, and the result is a delightful comedy full of varied three-dimensional characters.

Characters
Lady Billows (soprano)
Florence Pike, her housekeeper (contralto)
Mr Gedge, the Vicar (baritone)
Superintendent Budd (bass)
Mr Upfold, the Mayor (tenor)
Miss Wordsworth, head teacher (soprano)
Sid, the butcher’s assistant (baritone)
Nancy, the baker’s daughter (mezzo-soprano)
Mrs Herring, owner of the greengrocer’s shop (mezzo-soprano)
Albert Herring, her son (tenor)
Emmie, Cis & Harry, village children (2 sopranos & treble)

Plot Summary
Four leading citizens of the town of Loxford assemble at the home of Lady Billows to discuss the Mayday celebrations, chief of which is the appointment of May Queen. Sadly every girl named by the committee members is rejected by Florence, and they are shocked to realise that there is no suitable candidate. The policeman suggests appointing a King of the May, since Albert Herring would be ideal. At the greengrocer’s, Sid tries to lure Albert away from the paths of righteousness, but he is himself distracted by the arrival of Nancy, his girlfriend. When they leave, Florence comes in to summon Mrs Herring, and as the committee assemble, Albert’s mum is advised of the great honour to be bestowed on her son, including twenty-five sovereigns. When they are left alone Albert tells her he will refuse the title, and he is sent to his room in disgrace. When the great day arrives, Albert is thoroughly miserable. Sid assists Nancy in laying out the food in the marquee before the people arrive, and he laces Albert’s lemonade with rum. The villagers assemble, and after the speeches a toast is proposed. Albert shows signs of enjoying his lemonade, and the feast begins. A few hours later he returns to the shop still feeling cheerful, and overhears the rendezvous between Sid and Nancy outside. He decides to find out what he has been missing out on, and leaves the shop. His disappearance later causes panic, since his death is assumed. The assembled characters join in a grief-stricken threnody, at the climax of which Albert arrives, clearly no longer as innocent as he was.

RECORDINGS

NVC (1 DVD) Sung in English Recorded 1985

Conductor: Bernard Haitink Director: Peter Hall Designer: John Gunter
London Philharmonic Orchestra
John Graham-Hall (Albert), Patricia Johnson (Lady Billows), Felicity Palmer (Florence),
Alan Opie (Sid), Jean Rigby (Nancy), Derek Hammond Stroud (Gedge), Richard Van Allan (Budd)..

Peter Hall’s staging is an almost faultless realisation of this comic masterpiece. John Gunter’s designs make it a nostalgic period piece (though it is hard to imagine the production that would try something different), and Haitink and the LPO point up all the humour in the orchestration with ideal subtlety. John Graham-Hall is a perfect Albert, skinny, gawky, awkward, and above all young. Felicity Palmer would almost have seemed more obvious casting as Her Ladyship, but has since sung Florence far and wide. Patricia Johnson was enterprising casting as Lady Billows – it is hardly a role she would have come across spending her career in Berlin – and she doesn’t put a foot wrong. The other performers present their cameo roles as fully three-dimensional characters. The one point of contention when the production opened was the imposition of Suffolk accents on many of the characters. Most of the singers manage this quite well, and with Peter Hall being a native of that county we can be sure that they are accurate – none of them try to get away with the traditional all-purpose “Mummerset”.

DECCA (2 CDs) Sung in English Recorded 1964

Conductor: Benjamin Britten
English Chamber Orchestra
Peter Pears (Albert), Sylvia Fisher (Lady Billows), Johanna Peters (Florence), Joseph Ward (Sid), Catherine Wilson (Nancy), John Noble (Gedge), Owen Brannigan (Budd).

This is no longer (see below) the only recording conducted by Britten with Peter Pears in the title role. Most of the singers give characterful performances. Australian Sylvia Fisher was a leading dramatic soprano in the 1950s and by the sixties was concentrating on the nastier end of the character sector (Britten composed Miss Wingrave for her a few years later). Her Lady is formidable. Anyone who saw Anthony Besch’s excellent production for Scottish Opera (a fixture in the repertoire from 1966 to 1971 and introducing the company to several European cities) will be pleased to hear two Scottish stalwarts of that production. Florence was a part that Johanna Peters sang throughout her career with a number of companies, and her fruity contralto sounds wonderful. Catherine Wilson is excellent as Nancy – she continued to sing this mezzo role long after her career had switched to soprano territory. Owen Brannigan and the others are equally good. The only complaint is quite a serious one, in that Peter Pears simply sounds too old to be a realistic Albert, and his characterisation is a bit too affected.

NIMBUS (3 CDs) Sung in English Recorded 1949

Conductor: Benjamin Britten
English Opera Group Orchestra
Peter Pears (Albert), Joan Cross (Lady Billows), Gladys Parr (Florence), Denis Dowling (Sid), Nancy Evans (Nancy), Otakar Kraus (Gedge), Norman Lumsden (Budd), Anne Sharp (Emmie).

The survival of this live recording made on tour in Denmark seems almost miraculous, and most of the creators of the roles are here. It is particularly good to have a rare recording by Gladys Parr, a leading mezzo of Carl Rosa and BNOC in the twenties. Peter Pears sounds appropriately youthful. Apart from the treble singing the boy Harry, the only artist who did not appear in the original cast is Otakar Kraus as the Vicar. The young Scottish soprano Anne Sharp appears here in her only recording, as the schoolgirl Emmie. She actually sang Cis at the Glyndebourne premiere, switching to Emmie at Aldeburgh the following year. She went on to create a second Britten character, Juliet Brook in Let's Makes an Opera.

The Cast

Albert Herring
 from the greengrocer's
Cis
 a schoolgirl
Emmie
 a schoolgirl
Florence Pike
 housekeeper to Lady Billows
Harry
 a schoolboy
Lady Billows
 an elderly aristocrat
Miss Wordsworth
 head teacher
Mr Gedge
 the Vicar
Mr Upfold
 the Mayor
Mrs Herring
 the greengrocer, Albert's mother
Nancy
 from the baker's
Sid
 from the butcher's
Superintendent Budd
 police officer

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