Op. 39 (1947)
Comic Opera in Three Acts
Libretto by Eric Crozier, freely adapted from a story by Guy de Maupassant
Setting: The small East Suffolk town of Loxford, around 1900
Duration: 2 hours 20 minutes
First performance: 20 June 1947, Glyndebourne
Lady Billows (an elderly autocrat): Soprano
Florence Pike (her housekeeper): Contralto
Miss Wordsworth (head teacher): Soprano
Mr Gedge (the vicar): Baritone
Mr Upfold (the mayor): Tenor
Superintendent Budd: Bass
Sid (a butcher’s assistant): Baritone
Albert Herring (from the greengrocers): Tenor
Nancy (from the bakery): Mezzo-soprano
Mrs Herring (Albert’s mother): Mezzo-soprano
What’s it About?
Act 1. In a small Suffolk market town Mr Gedge, the Vicar, Police Superintendent Budd, Mr Upfold, the Mayor and the local head teacher Miss Wordsworth, meet at the home of Lady Billows to appoint at her behest a May Queen as encouragement to local chastity. As they review the list of candidates, Lady Billows’s housekeeper Florence Pike, armed with reports of unworthy behaviour, condemns each and every one. Eventually none is left, and instead a May King is proposed and Albert Herring – blameless son of a widowed shopkeeper – is chosen. The group informs Albert and his mother at their shop – though the shy young man tries unsuccessfully to refuse.
Act 2. At the ceremony in a marquee in the vicarage garden, butcher’s assistant Sid laces Albert’s lemonade, so that his contribution to the occasion consists largely of hiccups and silence. Later, back in the shop, Albert casts envious glances at the affectionate relationship between Sid and his girlfriend Nancy and, armed with his prize money, sets off in search of a little adventure of his own.
Act 3. By the following afternoon, concern is growing at his disappearance. The police are called in. Eventually the hasty villagers decide that he must have come to a bad end, and begin to mourn him. Up turns Albert, however, to face a telling off for going absent without leave and shocked reactions from his elders and betters when his carousing in public houses is revealed. Albert, of course, is unashamed, and celebrates his new-found independence by inviting three local kids into the greengrocers to share some peaches, tossing his May King’s orange blossom wreath into the audience as a final gesture.
Did You Know?
1. Albert Herring was based on the short story Le Rosier de Madame Husson by the French author Guy de Maupassant. It was suggested to Britten as the subject for his chamber opera by Eric Crozier who gave him an English translation of the story to read.
2. Gisors in Normandy is the original setting for Maupassant’s short story. The action in Britten and Crozier’s opera takes place in the Suffolk town of Loxford, which they created especially for the opera. There are references to several real local places in the opera, such as Saxmundham, Ufford, Orford, Iken, Snape, and Aldeburgh’s Jubilee Hall.
Albert Herring is dedicated to the novelist and literary critic EM Forster, with whom Britten and Crozier would shortly collaborate on the 1951 opera Billy Budd.
4. Britten was influenced by a number of musical styles when composing Albert Herring, notably Mozartian recitative – in which the piano accompanies some of the singers’ comical dialogue. He also made reference to the love potion scene in Wagner’s Tristan when Sid and Nancy spike Albert’s lemonade during the King of the May celebrations.
5. Joan Cross who created the role of the authoritarian Lady Billows described her character as ‘the Lady Bracknell of Opera’.
Flute (doubling piccolo & alto flute), oboe, clarinet in B flat (doubling bass clarinet), bassoon
Percussion (timpani, side drum, tenor drum, bass drum, triangle, cymbal, castanets, tambourine, gong, tubular bells in F, B flat and D, glockenspiel, whip, woodblock), harp, piano
String quintet (2 violins, viola, cello, double bass)
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