Albert Herring, Britten’s first and only comic opera, had its premier at Glyndebourne, that heart of preciousness, in 1947, where it was received by the owner and founder of the music festival with a warning to the audience that “This isn’t our kind of thing, you know”.
It isn’t recorded what Britten, who was conducting the opera, felt about this statement, but he surely rejoiced when, just before his death 30 years later, its reception at Glyndebourne was noted as “as one of the most exceptional the opera had ever had”. So you (and I) are free to choose what we think, and its reception has remained divided ever since.
On the one hand, it’s a delightful little village romp set about 1900 but written in 1947 as a post-war indulgence, that seeks to bring back the lost period when village life was full of gaiety, before Britain was riven by two world wars.
The plot is even sillier than anything by Gilbert and Sullivan, as the village council, made up of the inevitable mayor, village parson, bank manager and, of course the Lady of the Manor (think Mrs Bracknell slumming it) are trying to choose a Queen of the May from among the local yokels, but are unable to find a candidate of suitable moral purity.
The opera is so rarely performed it’s worth seeing to make up your own mind, by trying to position it in Britten’s overall oeuvre.
So a radical alternative candidate is chosen, the humble but unwilling Albert Herring, an upright, pure and slightly backward young man, the only virgin in the village, one might say, the son of the village grocer. Against all his protests, he is forced by his formidable mother to accept because of the 25 pounds prize money, so we see him sheepishly appearing, not in a white frilly frock, thank goodness, but in a noice white Edwardian suit with a floral wreath embellishing his boater.
At the ceremony, when the local dignitaries have gathered to grant him the prize, his rough-hewn friends Sid and Nancy lace his temperance lemonade with rum, a drink which he has never tasted and so doesn’t recognise.
The inevitable happens, he disappears on a bender and sets the whole village searching for him, until he returns the next day, a more defiant and a happier man (let’s draw a veil over what happened during the missing 24 hours) and settles down again to run the shop according to his own generous impulses, and throws away the May King hat – not a moment too soon, in my opinion.
So should we see it as a rather clumsy light comedy, or a stinging demand for social change? The searchers for deep-and-meaningfuls have always considered it a visionary argument for post-war change –its setting of post-Boer War rural England is a perfect metaphor for post-World War II Britain – but simpler audiences tend to accept and love it as just a jolly way of getting back at the stiff-upper-lip brigade.
Consider the date of its composition, just two years after the surrender of the German and Japanese forces, when the western world was re-defining itself and searching for new forms of social values. A decade later along come the Angry Young Men, the John Osbornes and the Arnold Weskers, setting their plays in a working class environment with a new generation of working class heroes. No more drawing room comedies and tapestry upholstery, for this is the rough and ready end of British society, and Britten was already on to it.
So what are we to make of Britten’s take on the new society? Is he, like his gloomy predecessor Matthew Arnold 100 years before left wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born? Surely he is more forward-looking than that, and is able to satirise the past rather than look back forlornly on it. For this is a very witty send-up of a very silly story, and if you can’t laugh there is something wrong with you – or else you’re my grandmother.
Does the music help us here or not? For me it doesn’t, and I was left desperately longing for a few more jollies, which are not apparent in any of the famous Britten dissonances. But for others it’s perfect, one of Britten’s boldest, most socially revolutionary statements: a piece that echoes the youthful urge to experiment, rebel and break free.
You pays your money and you makes your choice, as they say, and as the opera is so rarely performed it’s worth seeing to make up your own mind, by trying to position it in Britten’s overall oeuvre. You’ll certainly have a few laughs along the way with the absurd costumes just hovering on parody, the village set surely made for Open All Hours, and the large group of characters, both higher and lower class, who seem to have come straight out of Midsomer Murders. Felicity Abbott and Wendy Cork, set and costume designers, have worked wonders here.
On one level, it’s like every silly English sit-com-cum-fairy-story you’ve ever seen, and it’s only by setting the opera in a serious sociological and historical context that you can make intellectual and moral sense of it. On this level, it works superbly, but the worry for me is that the music is so divinely Britten’s own, and therefore too closely resembling his other more serious work, that I remain troubled by the opera.
Beresford lets his genius run free, and seems to be having great fun, adjusting his ideas to the capabilities of very young performers without talking down to them.
Not by the performance, though. We need make no excuses for the young cast from the Queensland Conservatorium, who act and sing as well as any other group you can think of, with a light touch and semi-serious tone. I saw the first cast, with Dominique Fegan from the Lisa Gasteen National Opera School doing a lovely Lady Bracknell impersonation as the elderly aristocrat Lady Billow. She alternated in this role with Michelle Alexander from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, but Fegan (the only one I saw), didn’t outshine or try to impress the student cast, of whom I particularly like Oliver Boyd as Sid the butcher’s assistant, Tegan Hollard as Nancy from the bakery, and Sebastian Maclaine as Albert Herring getting every nuance of his complex character right.
Beresford is best known for his award-winning films, but he has a deep love of opera, and has an impressive range of live productions ranging from Die tote Stadt for Opera Australia to The Crucible for Washington Opera. Here he lets his genius run free, and seems to be having great fun, adjusting his ideas to the capabilities of very young performers without talking down to them. He enters fully into the fun of the piece, and it’s a rare treat to see a great director at play like this.
A very fine production, then, with the talented Conservatorium Orchestra conducted by the Con’s Head of Opera, Nicholas Cleobury. But the final decision must be down to you. Is life a having and a getting, or a being and a becoming, as Matthew Arnold once said? The big questions are universal, no matter when or how they are expressed.