Britten Albert Herring
Having shown us the grim and nasty side of Aldeburgh life at the beginning of the nineteenth century in Peter Grimes, Britten had fun with its parochial aspects at the end of the century in his comic opera Albert Herring. For some tastes, it has proved too parochial, almost cosy. This tale of the mother-dominated shop assistant who is elected May King because of his virtue, is slipped a laced drink at his crowning and goes off for a night on the tiles, after which he asserts himself repels some who otherwise admire the composer because of its self-regarding whimsicality.
The possible cure for these people is to listen to Britten's own recording, here marvellously transferred to CD and showing once again what a genius John Culshaw was at making records of opera. Britten finds all the humour in the piece, but he gives it a cutting-edge and he is totally successful in conveying the proximity of comedy to tragedy in the remarkable ensemble where Albert is thought to have been killed. With the English Chamber Orchestra on peak form, all kinds of Bergian echoes in the score are revealed and some, too, of Verdi's Falslaff (Act 3). There is also Sir Peter Pears's brilliant performance as Albert, not a silly caricature but a genuine piece of perceptive singing-acting.
Britten takes some passages at Rossinian speeds, and in the touching love music for Sid and Nancy finds a true lyrical vein. As for the outright comic episodes, such as Lady Billows's speech, the composer of Paul Bunyan and the Pyramus and Thisbe episode in
The cast is, of course, well-nigh ideal, from John Noble's unctuous vicar, April Cantelo's Joyce Grenfell-like Miss Wordsworth, Joseph Ward's sturdy Sid and Catherine Wilson's sensuous Nancy to the outrageous but not overdone dragon Lady Billows (perfect diction) of Sylvia Fisher, the pompous mayor of Edgar Evans and unforgettably, Owen Brannigan's village policeman and Sheila Rex's Mrs Herring. Not to mention the cheeky children. If only Britten had written more comic operas.'