A Note from the Florentine’s guest lecturer
by Corliss Phillabaum
The tremendous success of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes at its 1945 premiere by London’s Sadler’s Wells Opera prompted many critics to hail the emergence of Britain’s first major opera composer since Henry Purcell. Britten was certainly eager to build on this success but he was faced with the grim reality that the market for new operas in England and elsewhere was limited, especially in a world just emerging from the devastation of World War II. Internal politics at Sadler’s Wells made new operas unwelcome and England’s only other opera company with the resources to produce full-scale operas, Covent Garden, also showed no interest in new works. However Britten was not only a multi-talented musician (composer, pianist, conductor), he was also a resourceful and talented administrator, and he drew on all of these skills to create his own solution: together with two associates, he founded his own opera company, the English Opera Group.
The concept of a touring opera company devoted to performing new operas written for small forces was suggested by Britten’s next opera, The Rape of Lucretia, which was written for a small cast of soloists, no chorus, and a chamber orchestra of a dozen players. It had been produced in 1946 in the intimate opera house of the Glyndebourne Festival. The possibilities of such a ‘chamber opera’, as Britten called it, shaped the ideas of Britten and his two associates, Eric Crozier (director of the first production of Peter Grimes) and the designer John Piper in forming their new company.
For his next opera, to be written with touring in mind, Britten wanted to write a comedy. Crozier suggested adapting a French short story by Guy de Maupassant, Le Rosier de Madame Husson, with the action transplanted to Britten’s native Suffolk, and ended up writing the libretto himself. Britten scored the opera for the same vocal and instrumental forces as Lucretia, and it was first produced at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1947. Both operas were subsequently staged in repertory by the new English Opera Group and toured in England and on the Continent. In addition to more operas by Britten, the company also commissioned and produced eleven new operas by other British composers over its three decades of activity and had a major influence on opera in England.
As in virtually all of Britten’s operas, the central character in Albert Herring is an outsider, someone who doesn’t fit in with the norms of a conservative society. In this case, however, a repressed mama’s boy is praised for his extreme ‘purity’ as (apparently) the only virtuous young person it town, with the unexpected result that he overcomes his inhibitions and breaks out for a wild night on the town. In de Maupassant’s original story the outcome is tragic as his Isidore becomes a hopeless alcoholic, but in Crozier and Britten’s version the ending is strongly positive.
Crozier’s libretto is both witty and singable and Britten’s music vividly characterizes the various town leaders both vocally and in the imaginative orchestration. The opera is a true ensemble work in which every singer has rewarding musical and dramatic moments and every instrumentalist has significant moments in the musical spotlight. Britten and his librettist poke affectionate and sharp-witted fun at their self-important pillars of small town society, but the serious overtones of the story and the treatment of Albert and his friends are both warm-hearted and genuinely moving. Britten’s comedy, created out of necessity, has deservedly become one of the most frequently produced of all 20th Century operas.