By James Conlon
Albert Herring, Britten’s only true comic opera, is the second of his three “chamber” operas. The first of these, The Rape of Lucretia (1946), was written immediately after his first successful opera, Peter Grimes, permanently established his international reputation. Seven years and three operas separate Albert Herring (1947) from the last of the three chamber operas, The Turn of the Screw (1954).
Despite the enormous success of Peter Grimes in 1945, the process of dealing with the human element of large orchestra and chorus, rules and regulations, resistance and intrigue had dampened his enthusiasm for writing for a large theater. His very solution was to write an opera for which he could personally control all of the elements. It was to be performed in a small theater, with a virtuoso orchestra of 13 players. The subject would be intimate with few characters and no chorus. By so doing, he liberated himself from any demands for convention emanating from the public as well as those of “star” singers. He had imposed conditions on the world to serve his operatic muse at an extraordinarily young age. Britten’s three chamber operas were premiered in small, but “established,” theaters: Glyndebourne for the first two, and Venice’s La Fenice for the third.
Albert Herring is very funny, but it is not a farce. Like most great comedies, an underlying seriousness raises it to a higher level. Beneath its mirth and humanity is a delightful but stinging critique of the mores of Victorian England, which still were operative in the 1940s. Britten, who consistently espoused socially progressive political ideas, shows his capacity to serve up radical fare to an often oblivious conservative public. The work was, if anything, underestimated at the beginning. Dismissed by some as light-weight mirth, its deeper encoded messages, whether unrecognized or denied, eluded the public. In contrast, The Marriage of Figaro, which today threatens no one, was considered subversive in a world in the throes of the French Revolution. Albert Herring passed under the radar, but time has revealed it to be far more radical than first assumed.
Albert Herring is the tale of the rite of passage and coming of age of the only son of Mrs. Herring, a grocer in an imaginary small market town in 1900. It satirizes the town’s leading lights. It dissects its social stratification, from Lady Billows, “an elderly autocrat” who leads a one-woman crusade to safeguard the town’s “morals,” down to three working-class children. Her clever servant, Florence Pike, is perched uncomfortably between her Mistress and the town. Her plaint is very Mozartian. The opera opens with her reflections on the difficulty of serving her mistress, recalling Figaro and Leporello’s grievances about their masters. The hypocrisies of small-town Victorian morality mirror those of their Mozartian predecessor. Beaumarchais and Da Ponte criticize the aristocracy’s claim on the sexuality of its servants and subjects; Britten and librettist Eric Crozier harpoon their hypocritical attempt to control it.
Britten focuses his keen eye on those themes that were to recur repeatedly in his dramatic works: the outsider, the marginalization of the individual, outraged innocence and social inequities. His unlikely young hero cuts himself loose from his mother’s apron strings, defies the entire town on the eve of his ceremonial crowning as “May King.” His night of debauchery is also his achievement, part defiance and part affirmation of his new sexual identity. He comes of age after “a nightmare example of drunkenness, dirt and worse….” Albert’s triumph is in defining himself as he is or wishes to be, not as what society and his mother have has told him he should be.
Britten enlightens and moves us, challenges and provokes us, while making us laugh, as Mozart, Wagner, Verdi and Puccini had done before him. Excepting early works, all but Mozart had virtually never written a comedy. In Verdi’s and Puccini’s cases, that overdue comedy was their last completed opera. The success of these great comic operas is partially explicable by these composers’ essential seriousness and vast theatrical experience. Through their profound gift for tragedy, drama and melodrama, they transformed that gravity for the comic stage.
Going into the period of World War II, the standard repertory could count five perfect comic masterpieces: The Marriage of Figaro, The Barber of Seville, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Falstaff and Gianni Schicchi. After Benjamin Britten delivered Albert Herring to the world in 1947, there were six.
James Conlon is the Richard Seaver Music Director of LA Opera