December 7, 2007: Britten, Albert Herring

Sadler’s Wells. Comic opera in three acts. Glyndebourne on tour. Revival of the original Glyndebourne staging by Peter Hall, directed by James Robert Carson. Three hours, including an effectively 25-minute interval.

This opera behaves like something of a genre piece about a simpler, charm­ing country life in a backwater provincial market town — until the title character, a lackluster, repressed young greengrocer, oppressed by a smothering, anxious mother, arrives home from the celebration where he has been crowned King of the May, given lemonade doctored with rum, and, loosened up by the alco­hol, soliloquises to the effect that he has never had a chance to break out of his bonds before now. Fortified by a purse of twenty-five gold sovereigns, he goes off (his late-arriving mother thinks he has already gone to bed) for the night of his life.

Britten’s serial-based music, continually like heightened conversation through the first two acts, competent and varied but somehow a little dull and dowdy, much like the town elders and matrons themselves, suddenly springs to life. (One thinks of a comparable moment when Billie, in the musical soliloquy that transforms Carousel, experiences a life-changing realization.) As a comment­ator in the program observes, Albert’s soliloquy has the great dramatic effect on the audience of making us re-think our experience of the first two acts, reinter­preting them in retrospect as a broader, deeper preparation for this desperate act of self-realization than we might have been aware of at the time.

Yet it also has to be said that those first two acts are, and remain, a bit dull, a bit too long. Perhaps twenty minutes could be cut — perhaps twenty-five or thirty — without doing appreciable harm to the dramatic line of development, and certainly without damaging the fairly thin, shallow characterizations of the town mayor, chief constable, church rector, and schoolteacher, to say nothing of the local aristocrat, Lady Billows. She is a two-dimensional Puritan who had conceived of the May Day coronation of a queen but, distressed to hear that no girl in the village could be found whose virtue could survive scrutiny, has acceded to the novel idea of crowning a King of the May. Albert, sexually and otherwise the most repressed and hence “virtuous” of all eligible males, is thus given his great chance in life, and takes it.

What follows turns out to be what evidently set the challenge for Britten, in this second opera of his burgeoning career, after the astonishing debut of Peter Grimes. The next morning Albert’s absence is discovered; in the course of the day he is widely and desperately searched for. And then the garlanded hat that served as his crown is found in the highway, crushed by a cart’s wheels. Jumping to the conclusion that Albert is no more, the town elders, congregating in the dimly-lit greengrocer’s shop, sing a dirge that surely must rank as one of the best composed such pieces in the modern operatic repertoire. A piece of mixed choral forces, interspersed with seemingly impromptu solos, as each of the char­acters pauses under a spotlight to explain how Albert’s lamentable termination has impacted the town, person, and way of life they have known heretofore, it is brilliantly staged by Peter Hall as a kind of aimless, slow turning in circles, counterclockwise, the characters weaving into and out of one another as they proceed funereally around the darkened shop. Composer, director, and fully competent singers (like the Vicar, Mr Gedge, sung with mellifluous sonority by the baritone Robert Davies) come together for what seemed like a full quarter hour, in a seamlessly unified musical and dramatic statement. It was, among other things, a real vindication (at least to me, who do not have much experience appreciating serial music) of the great possibilities for dramatic effect that this kind of music, at its best, evidently has.

This was the second opera by Britten that I have seen and heard in as many nights, and my gamble to see this second piece, after The Turn of the Screw, instead of trying for a last-minute ticket for Glengarry Glen Ross (with Jonathan Pryce) or Absurd Person Singular, really paid off. I will go back and listen to Peter Grimes again, and perhaps find a recording or even a DVD of Billie Budd, and try to figure out what I have been missing.

Meanwhile I must also record that the dirge is suddenly interrupted by the return of Albert Herring, dishevelled but intact, physically and morally as well. The lights come up, the townspeople berate Albert for misleading and comprom­ising them so badly, and insist on knowing where and how he spent the night and how much of the prize money he has wasted. The profligate’s story is a humorous one, all too predictable, perhaps, and it ends with the scandalous moment in which Albert, acknowledging he has spent his time with women as well as men, produces from under his coat a pair of flamingo-pink ladies’ bloom­ers, which he raises defiantly over his head and then throws over his shoulder into the hands of the horrified Lady Billows. Only one thing more remains: the mom­ent in which Albert tells his berating mother, “Enough.” The comic element of the opera has been fully restored, by this time, and the sunny, sprightly music we heard through the first two acts, punctuated by recitative conducted at such a furious pace that the supertitles can hardly keep up, once again prevails. Looking back, we know we have had a richer, more thought-provoking exper­ience than the mere restoration of normalcy in Loxford, East Suffolk, is likely to provide.

And one other note as well, about Peter Hall’s staging, which, on a stage almost as wide and deep as the ENO’s, has a breadth and easy depth, and a variety and clarity, that are as good as anything we could ask for. Hall always leads the audience’s eye to the dramatic focal point, in a seemingly effortless, natural way. He is sometimes ingenious but almost never contrived, and, in the case of an action that is — shall we say, leisurely, through the first two acts, he manages to clarify purpose, motive, and emotion in maintaining a satisfying, dynamic balance. This was operatic staging at its best, and what it originally was able to do in the way of clarifying and verifying a less than compelling dramatic action, before the crisis and climax finally emerged, has been lovingly restored to life in this fine latter-day production of a little-known opera by one of the most well-known of twentieth century British composers.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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