Comic Opera in Three Acts (duration 2 hours 20 minutes)

Libretto by Eric Crozier, freely adapted from a story by Guy de Maupassant

A quick introduction

When was it written?

Winter 1946-Spring 1947. The first performance was on 20 June 147 at Glyndebourne.

What’s it about?

In the small market town of Loxford, a shy young man called Albert is urged to become the town’s ‘May King’ in the annual fete. He is tricked into drinking spiked lemonade, and sets off on a boisterous adventure which provides him with a new-found sense of independence.

What does it sound like?

This is one of Britten’s rare comic operas, and the soundworld is light, with lots of energetic choruses and orchestral interludes. An exception is the ‘Threnody’, sung for Albert when the townspeople believe he is missing, presumed dead, during his escapades.

Watch & listen

Did you know?

1. Albert Herring was based on the short story Le Rosier de Madame Husson by the French author Guy de Maupassant. It was suggested to Britten as the subject for his chamber opera by Eric Crozier who gave him an English translation of the story to read.

2. Gisors in Normandy is the original setting for Maupassant’s short story. The action in Britten and Crozier’s opera takes place in the Suffolk town of Loxford, which they created especially for the opera. There are references to several real local places in the opera, such as Saxmundham, Ufford, Orford, Iken, Snape, and Aldeburgh’s Jubilee Hall.

3. Albert Herring is dedicated to the novelist and literary critic EM Forster, with whom Britten and Crozier would shortly collaborate on the 1951 opera Billy Budd.

4. Britten was influenced by a number of musical styles when composing Albert Herring, notably Mozartian recitative – in which the piano accompanies some of the singers’ comical dialogue. He also made reference to the love potion scene in Wagner’s Tristan when Sid and Nancy spike Albert’s lemonade during the King of the May celebrations.

5. Joan Cross who created the role of the authoritarian Lady Billows described her character as ‘the Lady Bracknell of Opera’.

The plot

Time and Place: The small East Suffolk town of Loxford, around 1900

Act 1. In a small Suffolk market town Mr Gedge, the Vicar, Police Superintendent Budd, Mr Upfold, the Mayor and the local head teacher Miss Wordsworth, meet at the home of Lady Billows to appoint at her behest a May Queen as encouragement to local chastity. As they review the list of candidates, Lady Billows’s housekeeper Florence Pike, armed with reports of unworthy behaviour, condemns each and every one. Eventually none is left, and instead a May King is proposed and Albert Herring – blameless son of a widowed shopkeeper – is chosen. The group informs Albert and his mother at their shop – though the shy young man tries unsuccessfully to refuse.

Act 2. At the ceremony in a marquee in the vicarage garden, butcher’s assistant Sid laces Albert’s lemonade, so that his contribution to the occasion consists largely of hiccups and silence. Later, back in the shop, Albert casts envious glances at the affectionate relationship between Sid and his girlfriend Nancy and, armed with his prize money, sets off in search of a little adventure of his own.

Act 3. By the following afternoon, concern is growing at his disappearance. The police are called in. Eventually the hasty villagers decide that he must have come to a bad end, and begin to mourn him. Up turns Albert, however, to face a telling off for going absent without leave and shocked reactions from his elders and betters when his carousing in public houses is revealed. Albert, of course, is unashamed, and celebrates his new-found independence by inviting three local kids into the greengrocers to share some peaches, tossing his May King’s orange blossom wreath into the audience as a final gesture.

In The Archive

Rehearsal photograph of Act II scene 1 The Marquee, June 1947. Photographer: Cyril Arnold.

For information about performing forces and where to buy/hire a score please visit the publisher pages.