I am brutally honest I will admit that I am not the best of persons
to review Benjamin Britten's opera Albert Herring. Let
me explain. I do not really enjoy his operas; they do not move
me or turn me on. There - that is a bold and honest statement
to make! Of course I have listened to, and sat through performances
of Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, Turn of the Screw
and A Midsummer Nights Dream. However, if I am frank with
you, I did not really enjoy them. Now before someone accuses me
of being a philistine for not enjoying these 'masterworks' let
me state right away that I have always preferred chamber, piano
and orchestral music to opera. I never cease to enjoy telling
the story of the first time I went to hear Götterdämmerung
at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow. We endured the first act, went
for a curry during the second and returned for the immolation.
do like much of Britten's music. At least as far as the 1950s.
It then becomes less approachable … to me. My favourite works
are the Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings and
A Boy was Born. However the operas have never really hit
the spot. I often feel it is a personal failing - yet we cannot
like every genre of music with equal conviction. My saving grace
is that I can recognise that a piece of music that is not exactly
to my taste happens to be a masterpiece.
is it that turns me off this music? Well perhaps it is the very
thing that makes it an operatic success. Nothing seems to happen.
There is a state of equilibrium in this work. Albert Herring
has often been criticised for being too provincial, parochial
and trivial in its subject matter to waste a couple of hours of
precious listening time. Yet Albert appears to be popular
with the opera-going population. Apparently it is one of the composer's
most produced works. Now I must confess that I was bored to death
by great swathes of this CD. Yet to be fair to the review it was
important that I tried to give it my best shot. I followed the
events using a piano score to avoid any day-dreaming or tendency
to do something else - like watch the cat de-fleaing itself. I
admit that there are not a few bits of this work that appeal to
me. Some fine vocal phrases and fair number of felicitous instrumental
melodies. However, with the best will in the world I have to say
that it seems to take hours to say not a lot. I do not feel that
I have engaged with the great verities of the world. It feels
more like watching a soap opera rather than grand opera.
is it all about? Well a review is not the place to give a full
synopsis of the work. However, just in case someone is not up
to speed on this opera I will give a few headlines:-
local village carnival committee is trying to find a May Queen.
They need her presence for the annual bash through the streets.
However they are unable to find a suitable and virtuous young
lady - so they make a bold decision and choose a boy! A May King
(or is it really Queen?) this year. The youth chosen is the somewhat
thick-witted Albert Herring who with his mother runs the local
greengrocer's shop. Certainly he is innocent of the ways of the
world. After botching his acceptance speech, he ends up with his
lemonade spiked and so bolstered by alcohol and acclaim, disappears
from the village. Naturally the villagers are concerned and worried
about what may have happened to the newly confident and sexually
aware lad. Eventually he returns in a sorry state and proceeds
to tell the village elders and his mother what he thinks of them
- much to the delight of the young folk. We assume that he has
been naughty during his absence and probably no longer deserves
the title of May King. And that's all folks!
to be positive. Although I am not moved by this music, I can understand
why it is popular and can well recognise that it is a masterpiece
- both as a work and in its presentation in this recording. The
vocal style is declamatory. There are no arias as such, although
occasionally two people agree to sing a couple of lines together.
The libretto would work as a play as well as an opera. I always
remember a few friends parodying modern opera.
will you drink'
pint of Guinness and a bag of salted peanuts, please....
so the text of their spoof ran on; everyday things presented as
an art form. And this is of course what Britten is doing. He is
presenting village life, warts and all. It is full of allusions
to all kinds of local life and provincial attitudes. Witness the
scene with Albert and Bill in the shop - just a recollection of
everyday chit-chat. However there are deeper moments. Britten
makes use of children's songs to emphasise innocence and perhaps
loss of innocence - a recurring theme in the composer's music.
Then there is the heartfelt music played when it is imagined that
Albert has 'gone beyond recall.' (Edgar Marriot)
characterisation is good too - and this is reflected in this excellent
recording. Lady Billows is played superbly. She is, incidentally,
alive and well in many parishes to this day. The local vicar is
rather good, as is the 'twittering' schoolmistress. In those days
the village was lucky enough to have its own policeman! Happy
it is difficult to classify. I feel some of it is always about
to go into Gilbert and Sullivanesque whimsy. Occasionally Kurt
Weill springs to mind. It is certainly easier on my ears than
Turn of the Screw or Owen Wingrave. Britten was
somewhat innovative by putting the 13-piece band onto the stage
- and this appears to work well. Steuart Bedford conducts the
proceedings from a piano in full view of the audience.
recording itself is fantastic. It is an all star cast - see above
for the listing. This was an old Collins release from 1996 that
Naxos has decided to re-issue. The conductor is able to control
the cast and orchestra to a high degree. For enthusiasts of this
opera every note counts; every word is important in building up
a picture of rural life. And this is what Bedford achieves.
CD comes with a complete libretto, which I believe is necessary
to a full appreciation of this work. However I would have liked
a little bit more info on the opera and its place in the Britten
a great recording that reveals this work as the operatic masterpiece
that it undoubtedly is. The fact that I personally did not enjoy
it is neither here nor there. This is a great work, well presented
and finely recorded. A must for all Britten opera enthusiasts.
see also review by John