Albert Herring is a comic chamber opera in three acts by Benjamin Britten, his Op. 39. Written as a companion piece for his serious opera The Rape of Lucretia, the libretto, by Eric Crozier, was based on Guy de Maupassant's story Le Rosier de Madame Husson, but transposed entirely to an English setting.
Albert Herring is in some ways reminiscent of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan and in some ways that of Richard Strauss. The text itself is genuinely funny, and there are myriad musical quotations within the score, as well as some complex forms within, despite the light subject matter. Like Peter Grimes and other works by Britten, this opera explores society's reaction to an odd individual, although, in this case at least, it is from a generally humorous and lighthearted perspective. Some of Britten's contemporaries saw in the title character a satirical self-portrait of the composer.
The opera was premiered on 20 June 1947 in Glyndebourne, conducted by the composer. According to one writer, John Christie, the owner and founder of Glyndebourne "disliked it intensely and is said to have greeted members of the first night audience with the words: 'This isn't our kind of thing, you know'"
The opera was given its US premiere on 8 August 1949 as part of the Tanglewood Music Festival and Glyndebourne's 1985 production was "one of the most successful the opera has had". In the past sixty years, it has been performed on an occasional basis, although since 2008, 55 performances have been given or are planned by companies such as those at Glyndebourne and the Portland Opera in Oregon (2008 season); the Opéra-Comique in Paris and the Opéra de Normandie in Rouen (2009); and, for 2010, at the Landestheater in Linz, the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki and the Santa Fe Opera
|Role||Voice type||Premiere Cast, 20 June 1947
(Conductor: Benjamin Britten)
|Lady Billows, an elderly autocrat||soprano||Joan Cross|
|Florence Pike, her housekeeper||contralto||Gladys Parr|
|Miss Wordsworth, a schoolteacher||soprano||Margaret Ritchie|
|Mr. Gedge, the vicar||baritone||William Parsons|
|Mr. Upfold, the mayor||tenor||Roy Ashton|
|Superintendent Budd||bass||Norman Lumsden|
|Sid, a butcher's assistant||baritone||Frederick Sharp|
|Albert Herring, from the greengrocer's||tenor||Peter Pears|
|Nancy, from the bakery||mezzo-soprano||Nancy Evans|
|Mrs. Herring, Albert's mother||mezzo-soprano||Betsy de la Porte|
Housekeeper Florence Pike is run ragged. Her mistress Lady Billows is organizing the annual May Day festival, and has gathered all the important people of the village to vet nominees for the coveted position of Queen of the May. But Florence has dug up dirt on every single girl nominated, proving that none is worthy to wear the May Queen's crown. Lady Billows is depressed. Superintendent Budd suggests that the solution may be to select, this year, a May King instead of a May Queen. He knows of a young man in town who is as certainly virginal as the girls are not: Albert Herring.
At the greengrocer's, Albert is teased for his timidity by the easygoing Sid. Sid's girlfriend Nancy comes in to do some shopping, and the couple shares a tender moment while Albert eats his heart out. The lovers leave, and Albert reflects on his miserable existence under his mother's thumb. The Festival Committee arrives with the news of his selection as May King. Mrs. Herring is thrilled, Albert less so. Mother and son quarrel, to the mocking commentary of the village children.
It is the day of the festival. Sid and Nancy are preparing the banquet tent, and they take the chance to slip some rum into Albert's lemonade glass. Albert is tongue-tied at the feast in his honor, but drinks his lemonade greedily, which Britten satirically illustrates with a quote from Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Together with his crown of flowers and the gruesome but improving Foxe's The Book of Martyrs, he is awarded twenty-five pounds in prize money.
That night, Albert arrives home alone, quite drunk. In the street, Sid keeps a date with Nancy, and the two discuss their sympathetic pity for Albert before going off together. This is finally the breaking point for Albert. He takes the prize money and heads out looking for adventure.
The next morning Albert has not returned, and the village is in a panic. Superintendent Budd is leading a search, while the guilt-stricken Nancy tends to Mrs. Herring. A boy shouts that a "Big White Something" has been found in a well, and the village worthies file in to break the news en masse that Albert's crown of flowers has been discovered, crushed by a cart. Clearly, he is dead. A lengthy threnody of grief is interrupted by the surprise return of Albert. He thanks the Festival Committee for providing him with the cash for his night out. They, in turn, are outraged by his tale of drunken debauchery, and leave in a huff. Albert finally stands up to his mother, and invites the village kids into the shop to sample some complimentary fruit.
Currently, there are five audio recordings of Albert Herring, with the following artists:
“Cat:” refers to recording company’s catalogue number.