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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Albert Herring (1947)
Albert Herring - Christopher Gillett
Lady Billows - Josephine Barstow
Florence Pike - Felicity Palmer
Superintendent Budd - Robert Lloyd
The Vicar - Peter Savidge
Sid - Gerald Finley
Nancy - Ann Taylor
Mrs. Herring - Della Jones
Miss Wordsworth - Susan Gritton
The Mayor - Stuart Kale
Village children - Yvette Bonner, Témimé Boling, Matthew Long
Northern Sinfonia conducted by Stuart Bedford
Recorded August 1996 at All Saint’s Church, Gosforth, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK
NAXOS OPERA CLASSICS 8.660107/8 [64.10+77.09]

It was of course widely known that Britten was homosexual, but little or no open reference was made to the fact in connection with his work during his lifetime. Even after his death there was a certain coyness about broaching it. Michael Wilcox’s book Benjamin Britten’s Operas (Absolute Press, 1997) was probably the first study, and is still perhaps the only one, where the composer’s sexual orientation takes centre-stage.

Wilcox is a playwright and his book about Britten looks at the operas from a theatrical rather than a musical point of view. Each opera is examined with particular attention to its homosexual subtext. It’s a convincing survey, and brings to light all manner of signs and clues to the way the composer was thinking, many of them no doubt unconscious, others apparently very conscious indeed. Whether or not we want to agree with this kind of interpretation – perhaps the very subject makes us uneasy – it’s difficult to read the libretto of Billy Budd, for example, written in part by the homosexual E M Forster, without wondering if Claggart’s admiration for Billy – "O beauty, o handsomeness, goodness!" – is really quite so altruistic as all that. Quint’s interest in Miles in The Turn of the Screw is hardly that of a loving uncle, or even simply a possessive ghost, come to that. And then there is the theme of the rejected outsider, the man apart, running through so many of these works that we have to ask ourselves if the composer’s status as a conscientious objector is sufficient to explain them.

Wilcox draws our attention to a number of aspects of Albert Herring which seem to leave little doubt that its creators, librettist Eric Crozier as much as Britten we assume, wanted to make plain to those in the know that Albert is gay. The story of the opera is a simple one, taken from a Maupassant short story transplanted to a small town in Suffolk. It’s the time of the year when a Queen of the May is needed, and like every year a suitable candidate is hard to find. Where have all the good, reliable, and above all, virtuous young girls gone? In desperation, and breaking with tradition, the worthies decide this year to choose a boy, Albert, whose mother runs the grocery shop. Albert is unwilling, but his mother insists. She should have known better. The young lovers Sid and Nancy spike his celebration drink, giving him the courage he needs to rebel. He disappears, coming home only the following morning having passed the night in a way which the selection committee would surely have disapproved of. Just what he got up to is cleverly elucidated by Wilcox who draws attention to jangling keys, or in this case, the shop bell, whistling and Swan Vestas matches, all used in wartime homosexual circles as part of the ritual of making contact. Albert’s crown, we learn, has been found in a sorry state on the road to Campsey Ash. I think we would agree that this is not a very subtle place name even as it stands, and barely have need of the aid of those crossword enthusiasts who would spot straight away the anagram for "Yes, AH’s camp".

Of course it’s possible to listen to and enjoy (or not) Albert Herring without paying the slightest attention to all this, just as it was possible to laugh at the BBC Home Service’s Round the Horne and remain in ignorance of what the subject matter really was. (You were bound to wonder, though, at Kenneth Horne’s assertion in one show, when things had taken an even more daring turn than usual, that "…it’s surprising what you can get away with…") Albert Herring is a true comic opera with a lightness of touch rarely found in Britten’s output. The characters are deftly drawn both by their words and by the music the composer puts to them. The story moves along swiftly and there are numerous surprising turns arising both from the story and the characters themselves. As with much of the best comedy we can draw serious lessons from the work, and the truth of it brings with it the power to move the audience. There is even a heterosexual couple whose love is blissful – as it should be – and convincingly drawn by Britten.

This recording was originally issued in 1997 on the now defunct Collins label as part of a planned series of Britten operas. Steuart Bedford was one of the composer’s preferred interpreters who also conducted, amongst others, the Decca recording of Death in Venice under the composer’s supervision when Britten himself was too ill to do so. Naxos, with typically sound commercial good sense, have put collectors in their debt by reissuing this set. The Turn of the Screw, also conducted by Bedford, has just appeared and we look with interest on their release lists to see what other reissued treasures are to come. Christopher Gillett makes a delightful and totally convincing Albert, his passage from frustrated and petulant boy to someone with, shall we say, rather more experience of life, all the more convincing by his being demonstrably young. There is not a weak link in the cast, but particular attention should be drawn to the moving portrayal of the two lovers Nancy and Sid, previously mentioned, with special praise for Gerald Finley’s ardent and eloquent singing, lifting this part into a higher plane than it usually attains.

If Naxos do the collector a favour one wonders what effect it has on the competition. It was particularly unfortunate timing that this release almost coincided with the appearance of a completely new recording of the opera from Chandos, especially when new opera recordings are so thin on the ground and Chandos have committed themselves to a major series of Britten operas. The Chandos cast is uniformly excellent too, and Richard Hickox directs with a delicacy and sense of scale I don’t always find in his work. There is slightly more of the theatre about his reading and a marginally better feel for the truly comic nature of the work. Britten’s own reading is a superb performance and a classic of the gramophone. Sylvia Fisher is particularly striking as Lady Billows, and the playing of the English Chamber Orchestra is incomparable, fine though the orchestral playing is on the other two versions. The part of Albert was written of course with Peter Pears’ voice in mind, but the idea of Pears as a teenager seems ludicrous when measured against the other portrayals, though he is very convincing in a leering kind of way once Albert has, after his own fashion, come out.

If you are to have just one reading of Albert Herring in your collection there are arguments for each of the three versions. Richard Hickox’s on Chandos is probably the finest overall. Britten’s reading is an indispensable historical document and any serious Britten enthusiast or student will want to have it. But the Naxos reissue, especially at the price, is quite irresistible, particularly when you take into account the excellent booklet containing an interesting note by Sue Knussen and the complete libretto.

William Hedley

see also reviews by John France and John Leeman

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