Albert Herring at Covent Garden

A director has to make us laugh while also finding the darker kernel
encased in an outer shell of light-hearted satire; to enjoy and celebrate its
somewhat localised, even cliquish, nature, while also recognising the
continuing relevance and wider frame of reference of its themes and

Composed for the newly formed English Opera Group and first performed at
Glyndebourne in 1947, the opera can seem on the surface to be a comic companion
piece to The Rape of Lucretia. When Albert Herring opened the
inaugural Aldeburgh Festival in 1948, the Suffolk audience must have been aware
that small towns and villages around Aldeburgh, and their inhabitants, had come
in for a sharp, somewhat patronising, satirical critique.

The local benefactress, Lady Billows, (modelled, according to Britten’s
sister, Beth, on her mother-in-law!) has offered a prize of £25 to be given to
a ‘May Queen’ as an encouragement to virtue. In the absence of a suitably
chaste maiden, Albert Herring is nominated ‘May King’, to the delight of
his overbearing, domineering mother. At the crowning ceremony two young lovers,
Sid and Nancy, lace Albert’s lemonade with rum; called upon to give a speech
he can only hiccough drunkenly, and he flees. When Albert’s orange-blossom
crown is later discovered in the gutter, muddy and squashed, the worst is
assumed. But, the community’s collective outpouring of grief is interrupted
when Albert creeps nonchalantly back in. He explains that he has merely been
enjoying experiences that have been denied him in the past and, derisively
rejecting his crown, announces his new spirit of self-assertion.

In his ‘Director’s Notes’, Christopher Rolls maintains, “The key
thing about Herring is that it is very, very funny. Funny
because it’s full of absurd situations and recognisable characters.” That
may be so, but without careful direction the somewhat dated humour can quickly
slide into stereotype and caricature — what Ronald Duncan described as
“church-bazaar parochialism” — and the localisms and provincialisms of
Eric Crozier’s rather prosaic libretto can seem old-fashioned, even dull. To
impose an overly serious sophistication on the work would undermine the
animated light-heartedness of the drama; but, there must be some
acknowledgement of the complex dialogues which the opera conducts: between
innocence and experience, repression and liberation, subjugation and

The black-box stage of the Linbury Theatre necessitates imaginative and
economical designing, and Neil Irish’s ‘caged’ set neatly served for all
three of the opera’s locations — the May Day committee room, the
Herring’s greengrocer shop and the crowning banquet itself — while cleverly
conveying the oppression and containment experienced not just by the
brow-beaten Albert, but by all members of the Loxford community who are under
Lady Billows’ domination.

ETO-6611.gifRosie Aldridge as Florence Pike, Jennifer Rhys-Davies as Lady Billows and Anna-Clare Monk as Miss Wordsworth

Albert is literally imprisoned within his mother’s shop and metaphorically
oppressed by the labels imposed upon him by Loxford society. Visually, the
grid-like trellis which scaled three walls also offered plenty of opportunities
for surreptitious surveillance, and glimpses of the world on the other side of
the bars were a reminder of Albert’s confinement and a symbol of his yearning
for release. Guy Hoare’s subtle and imaginative lighting added much, as
shadows surreptitiously deepened and were alleviated, reflecting the emotional
swings of the drama.

At the start of Act 1, the inhabitants of Loxford assemble in turn, and the
ETO cast immediately and deftly established clear-cut characterisation.
Delivering, without exception, Crozier’s unassuming text in an unaffected
manner, they achieved a balance between pastiche and realism, using
exaggeration and over-emphasis intelligently and sparingly.

Taking her instructions from the imperious Lady Billows, the be-trousered (a
hint of lesbianism?) Rosie Aldridge was a thoughtful, composed Florence,
diligently noting in flexible recitative the methods she must use to gather
evidence of moral corruption among the young in Loxford, while allowing her
voice to bloom in more lyrical passages to suggest a latent awareness of her
employer’s intolerance and narrow-mindedness.

Jennifer Rhys-Davies almost strayed into Edith Evans/Lady Bracknell
territory, as the magisterial matriarch determined to ‘purify’ Loxford, but
in the end her Lady Billows stayed just on the right side of caricature.
Rhys-Davies had the vocal presence and dramatic stature to command the stage,
particularly in her Act 1 aria where she reveals her intention to honour a
May-Queen, her vitriolic abhorrence of natural passion and love stifling and
silencing all those around her. The extent of the threat she poses became fully
apparent in the Act 2 aria, her absurd patriotic cries “Britons! Rule the
deep!” raising a laugh while also revealing a dangerous lack of
self-awareness and empathy.

Bass Tim Dawkins was a witty Superintendent Budd, wily and
self-congratulating in proposing Albert to be May King, while Anna-Clare Monk
was a rounded, credible Miss Wordsworth, her clear, bright soprano just right
for a prim schoolmistress forced to fend off the furtive, unwanted attentions
of the oleaginous cleric, Mr Gedge. The latter was played with obsequious
oiliness by baritone Charles Johnston, whose rich, buoyant tone fully suggested
the reverend’s vain pomposity. Tenor Richard Roberts was a sprightly mayor,
prone to credible outbursts of self-important earnestness.

Most importantly, the delineated individuals merged into well-blended
ensembles, where as a fused musical voice they revealed the frightening power
of the forces of oppression within the community. There was a very real menace
in their collective bigotry; often turning to face the audience square-on,
en masse they lost their individuality and humanity, in a way that,
however attractive the humour, ensured that they never had our full sympathy.
This was utilised effectively in the elaborate Act 3 threnody, where sheer
weight of sound could not compensate for lack of sentiment or sincerity — as
was impressively apparent when the cloak of mock mourning was swiftly thrown
aside with the insouciant reappearance of Albert, “What’s going on?”.

ETO_6764.gifMartha Jones as Nancy and Charles Rice as Sid

There are few passages of lyrical expansion within this comic score, but
those moments that do exist present the crux of the drama, and express both
exuberant joy and melancholy yearning. As the young lovers, Sid and Nancy,
Charles Rice and Martha Jones offered a relationship characterised by natural
affection, tolerance and realism; their love duet in Act 1 was tender and
gentle, a much needed counterpoint to Lady Billows’ life-denying

The gait and mannerisms of Mark Wilde’s Albert, entering laden with boxes
of vegetables, aptly conveyed the weight of the burden he bears. Wilde’s
relaxed, expressive tenor affectingly revealed Albert’s loneliness. Kitted
out in diamond-patterned grey sweater and afflicted by a nervous tic, his
dramatic eloquence was touchingly at odds with his physical appearance.
Wilde’s interpretation was never sentimental. He made it clear that Albert is
not wholly innocent or pure, but that he understands his ridiculers’
double entrendres, and is troubled by feelings for which he has no
opportunity of expressive outlet or satiation, nascent anger and rebellion.

Returning from the feast, Wilde flung out recollections of the community’s
adulation — ‘Albert the Good! Long may he reign! — with a mixture of
pride and contempt. He effectively conveyed Albert’s growing anger and built
powerfully towards Albert’s bitter rejection of the identities that the
community imposes on him, “Albert the Good! Albert who Should!”, and
“Albert the Meek! Albert the Sheep! Mrs Herring’s — Guinea Pig!”
Clarissa Meek revealed the destructive nature of a mother’s suffocating love,
with humour and insight. During Mrs Herring’s outpouring of loss at the end
of Act 3, Meek’s avowal of grief was tinged with both regret and

In the children’s roles, Emily-Jane Thomas (Cis) and Erin Hughes (Emmie)
brought an apt unruly mischievousness to the staid community, pilfering fruit
from the shop, teasing the inept Albert, and greedily anticipating the feast.
Their boisterous energy could not even be fully quenched when they were
marshalled by Miss Wordsworth to learn the May-King Anthem. At eighteen years
of age, Hughes demonstrated an impressive talent.

An experienced conductor of Britten’s scores, Michael Rosewell was alert
to the sharpness of the musical characterisation and the ingeniousness of
Britten’s instrumentation. The sparse texture of the small ensemble enabled
the individual lines to readily cut through; if the tone was sometimes a little
hard that was probably at least partly due to the Linbury’s rather
unsympathetic acoustic; and, in any case, a slightly harsh tone perfectly
pointed the Loxford residents’ pettiness and cruelty.

This production certainly did fulfil Rolls’ stated intention to “serve
both its light and dark sides”. The Maupassant short story from which the
libretto was drawn, is a much darker affair, its protagonist, Isidore, coming
to a painful, tragic end: “Who knows, who can tell, what grim struggle raged
in the Rose-king’s soul between the powers of good and evil?”,
Maupassant’s narrator asks. Albert’s liberation is presented by Rolls as an
unfailingly positive outcome. Initially incarcerated by his mother’s
overpowering embrace and by his public reputation for an almost unnatural
innocence, this Albert is now ready to face the world on his own terms,
transformed and sustained by his knowledge of love.

Claire Seymour

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for cast and production information.

image_description=Mark Wilde as Albert Herring and Jennifer Rhys-Davies as Lady Billows. [Photo by Richard Hubert Smith courtesy of English Touring Opera]
product_title=Benjamin Britten: Albert Herring
English Touring Opera, Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Wednesday. 10th October 2012.
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Mark Wilde as Albert Herring and Jennifer Rhys-Davies as Lady Billows.

Photos by Richard Hubert Smith courtesy of English Touring Opera