England isn’t exactly famous for producing high-class composers, but Benjamin Britten is one rose among the thorns. The conductor and pianist is arguably one of the most influential composers in Britain, and according to the Operabase website, he has more operas played worldwide over any other composer born in the 20th century. Born in an era when English opera was growing in independence and forging its identity, Britten impressed even his harshest critics with his flair and dramatic musicality. But Britten himself considered the scene to be amateurish and distanced himself from it – such snobbery is perhaps the secret to his far-reaching success.
Britten liked to write about snobs too, and Albert Herring is one example of this penchant. Britten’s characters are often outsiders and it is quite probable that their creator, a conscientious objector during the Second World War, identified with such figures. He was heavily criticised over his personality, sexuality and political point of view during his career and treated with suspicion over his admiration of composers Gustav Mahler, Alban Berg and Igor Stravinsky – none of whom were then deemed appropriate role models for a young musician of that time.
Composed in 1946-47, Albert Herring is a chamber opera in three acts exploring society’s reaction to a strange individual. Set in 1900 in Loxford, a small Suffolk market town filled with sanctimonious snobs, the play begins as the village committee is discussing its search for a May Queen. The head of the committee, the self-righteous Lady Billows, is so disenchanted by the poor standard among the aspiring queens that she refuses to crown one. But the police superintendent comes to the rescue, suggesting the shy bachelor, Albert Herring, be crowned the King of May instead. Lady Billows agrees it’s a good idea, if only to teach the disgraceful Loxford girls a lesson. Before his coronation, the mischievous Sid spikes Albert’s lemonade at high tea, leading to drunken misadventures. Though Albert’s transformation is described by those present as “a nightmare example of drunkenness, dirt and worse”, his outburst, in reality, empowers him to escape the oppression of his dominant mother and the hypocrisy of the town in which he lives. As it is remarked: “Every good boy deserves favour.”
The plot is light-hearted – in fact, Britten wrote this opera as a way to cheer himself up after his confrontational The Rape of Lucretia, which ends with Lucretia fatally stabbing herself. Incidentally, this opera also played in Copenhagen in 2010 – there must be someone at the Opera House with an appreciation for Britten’s work. Playing at Det Kongelige Teater’s Gamle Scene, Albert Herring is a co-production with Cantiere Internazionale d’Arte di Montepulciano and is performed in English with Danish subtitles. Though the opera’s subject matter is comic, the musical composition is complex, bringing with it a delightful contrast. The writing is hilarious and perhaps even reminiscent of English opera’s origins as jigs performed at the end of plays at court. And who doesn’t like a good ol’ jig?
Gamle Scene, Kongens Nytorv 9, Cph K, starts Sun, ends June 8;
performances at 20:00 (unless stated) on Sun (12:00), Tue, May 26, May 29, May 31, June 2 (12:00), June 4, June 6, June 8;
Tickets: 95-495kr; 170 mins; sung in English with Danish supertitles; www.kglteater.dk