Albert Herring

Benjamin Britten

Albert Herring

Op. 39

About this work

In this charming adaptation of a story by Guy de Maupassant, Britten transplants the characters to his own neighborhood, a borough in East Anglia. As usual, absolutely everyone in the cast is brilliantly and economically characterized: you would swear you know someone just like them. It's 1900, and Lady Billows is concerned with declining morality among the young folk. She decides to revive the old tradition of honoring the most virtuous maiden of the village "Queen of the May." She sets her secretary, Florence, to figure out just who that would be but is crushed to learn that no girl qualifies. As Florence puts it, "Country virgins (if there be such) think too little and see too much."

Instead Lady Billows and her crowd (the town cop, the vicar, the schoolmistress, etc.) quite unilaterally decide to single out as "King of the May" the virginal mama's boy Albert, presumed to be a simpleton, who spends all his time running his shrew of a mother's greengrocer's shop. Albert is humiliated by the honor, but Mum forces him to accept because the May King crown carries with it a substantial purse from Lady Billows. The purse is the undoing of Her Ladyship's aims and Albert's liberation: emboldened by some rum that some others of his own age have used to spike the glass of lemonade he is served at his "coronation," Albert takes some of the money and goes off on a pub-crawl in the next village. He is presumed missing and dead, but comes back no longer a boy but a man, as they say. He delights in telling Mum, Her Ladyship, and the whole village about the "sordid, evil" degradation their paragon has done the previous night ("I didn't lay it on too thick, did I?" he later asks one of his confidants), sends Lady Billows politely but firmly on her way, and when his mother lights into him, shuts her up with a decisive "That'll do, Mum," to the delight of all the young people.

This is a chamber opera. Although it has a large cast, it is scored for only about a dozen instruments, which means that it is performed only in the special context of chamber operas and rarely on major operatic stages. Even so, it is something of a favorite among its kind: the music is unfailingly attractive and takes delightful advantage of every opportunity for comedy and satire. For instance, when Albert drinks the rum-laced lemonade, the orchestra plays the "Love Potion" theme from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. A rumor of Albert's corpse having been discovered brings about a gong-accompanied dirge which is at once comical and touching: The feelings of Albert's mother and the others are genuinely grieving at this point. Britten's word-setting is delightful: in performance, a lot rides on clear projection of the words so that the humor is clearly conveyed. Comedy requires precise timing, and Britten has as much of a way with that as any other great composer of comic opera has ever had. Thus, one of the great modern gems of comic opera. Albert Herring was premiered at Glyndebourne on June 20, 1947, with Britten conducting and Peter Pears in the title role; it was the inaugural production for the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948.