The British composer was
born on November 22nd 1913 — St. Cecelia’s day, in the seaside town
of Lowestoft. Before we go any further, I think you ought to know that
Lowestoft’s chief export was herring.
Janis Kelly as Lady Billows
Though Britten is generally known to the operatic public for somber operatic
works — the tragedies Peter Grimes and Billy Budd
— he also had a lively, if far less frequently displayed musical sense of
humor. In 1941,while living in the United States, he wrote the comical Paul
Bunyon to a libretto by W.S. Auden. He returned to England in 1942, where
Albert Herring premiered at Glyndebourne in 1947. Britten’s most
concentrated piece of musical hilarity can be found in his 1960 A Midsummer
Night’s Dream. Its Pyramus and Thisbe scene is a bright and
brilliant take of 19th century Italian opera.
Albert Herring is based on a story called Le Rosier de Mme.
Husson by French author Guy de Maupassant. The tale was suggested to
Britten by librettist, Eric Crozier, then a member of Britten’s coterie.
The story is set in Gisor, a French town in Normandy, socially structured much
like towns of England’s Suffolk County, assuring that the transfer of
locale was easily worked out. Its title can be loosely translated as Mme.
Husson’s Rose King.
The essence of the French story’s plot and that of the opera are
essentially the same. Both describe the eternal societal urge of small
town’s upper crust to make its lower crust behave better. Though their
endings and styles are far different — Crozier insisted the libretto have
some kind of rhyming scheme — both plans for betterment go awry.
Lady Billows, the formidable doyenne of the fictitious British town of
Loxford, is distressed by the number of illegitimate births, and decides to
find, crown and reward a virtuous May Queen. When the girls suggested by the
school teacher, the mayor, the police superintendent and the vicar are found
wanting by Lady Billows’ equally formidable housekeeper, Florence Pike,
the group decides to crown a May King. He is Albert Herring, a virginal boy who
works in his widowed mother’s greengrocer’s shop. Poor, protesting
Albert is decked out for the celebration in a white-as-a-swan suit and white
hat decorated with orange blossoms. Sitting nearby, his mother glows with pride
and waits impatiently to get the award money in her hands. But Albert’s
friend Sid and Sid’s girl Nancy, hoping to loosen him up, spike his
lemonade with rum. No sooner are the celebrations over when Albert
Liam Bonner as Sid; Daniela Mack as Nancy
There is a huge search for the boy. A clue is found – a filthy orange
blossom wreath. It is brought to the greengrocer’s home, laid to rest in
the center of the table, and mourned by all in a masterful piece of music, an
elegiac threnody, as if it were the boy himself. Albert’s sudden
appearance in his sullied white suit seems almost unwelcome, but returns us to
comedy as each person in turn interrogates him. His vice-laden adventures shock
everyone but Sid and Nancy. And in conclusion, after everyone leaves, he tells
his mother he’s keeping his money, and (horrors!) to mind her own
The Los Angeles Opera production, directed by Paul Curran was created for
Santa Fe Opera, whose theater is open to the setting sun and other elements of
nature. Differences in the set and lighting required for the enclosed Los
Angeles theater, enhanced and intensified elements of the production. Subtle
changes in the direction added to the comedy. Considering that Britten wrote
the work as a chamber opera, it played well in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Under James Conlon’s direction, the thirteen very individualistic
characters on the stage, and the thirteen very precise musicians in the pit
evoked the humor and pathos of Albert’s story. Maestro Conlon’s
appreciation of the opera — he considers it one of the five great comic
operas in the repertory — clarified elements of Britten’s scoring
of the work; for example, the differences between the pompous music of the Lady
Billows and town’s elite, and the rhythms of Albert and its shop keepers.
Conlon also made sure, in word during his pre-performance talk, and in music
when on the podium, that his audience heard Britten’s musical jest: the
love potion theme from Tristan and Isolde as the rum was poured into
Albert’s glass. Why not? This is the drink that will change his life
Richard Bernstein as Superintendent Budd; Alek Shrader as Albert Herring; Janis Kelly as Lady Billows; Jonathan Michie as Mr. Gedge, the Vicar; Robert McPherson as Mr. Upfold, the Mayor; Ronnita Nicole Miller as Florence Pike; Stacey Tappan as Miss Wordsworth
Every member of the cast with the exception of Stacey Tappan, Richard
Bernstein and Caleb Glickman was making an LA opera debut in his production.
Baritone Jonathan Michie, properly fussy as the Vicar, and lyric tenor Alek
Shrader, charming as Albert, had appeared in their roles in Santa Fe. Shrader,
who has been singing in Europe recently, will debut at the Met later this year.
Janis Kelly’s interpretation of the officious Lady Billows left nothing
to be desired vocally. She did however lack avoirdupois. One imagines her
ladyship to be more generously proportioned. Christine Brewer, a more ample
soprano and veteran of the Santa Fe production, sang the last two performances.
Mezzo Ronnita Nicole Miller, a singer I have enjoyed in the past, played
Florence Pike with great comic timing. Liam Bonner and Daniela Mack as Sid and
Nancy, were charmingly carefree lovers, and Jane Bunnell struck the proper
notes musically as well as theatrically, as the properly proud and distressed
mother who knows a quid when she sees one.
Rarely does one wonder what will happen to the characters in an opera after
the final curtain. Most often, all the ones we care about are dead. At the
conclusion of Albert Herring, however, every Loxford resident
we’ve met will go on living. One can’t help wondering about
Albert’s future in the town. Mme Husson’s May King became the
sobriquet for the Gisor’s town drunk.
image_description=Alek Shrader as Albert Herring, with Daniela Mack as Nancy and Liam Bonner as Sid [Photo by Robert Millard for LA Opera]
product_title=Benjamin Britten: Albert Herring
product_by=Lady Billows: Janis Kelly/Christine Brewer; Florence Pike: Ronnita Nicole Miller; Miss Wordsworth, head teacher: Stacey Tappan; Mr. Gedge, the Vicar:Jonathan Michie; Mr. Upfold, the Mayor: Robert McPherson; Police Superintendent Budd: Richard Bernstein; Emmie, Village Child: Erin Sanzero; Cis, Village Child: Jamie-Rose Guarrine; Harry, Village Child: Caleb Glickman; Sid, a butcher’s assistant: Liam Bonner; Albert Herring: Alek Shrader; Nancy, from the Bakery: Daniela Mack; Mrs. Herring, Albert’s Mother: Jane Funnel. Conductor: James Conlon. Director: Paul Curran. Scenic and Costume Designer: Kevin Knight. Lighting Designer: Rick Fisher.
product_id=Above: Alek Shrader as Albert Herring, with Daniela Mack as Nancy and Liam Bonner as Sid
Photos by Robert Millard for LA Opera