Richard Wagner and Benjamin Britten each created his own brand of utopia. Britten and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, established in 1948 a festival at Aldeburgh, a rude fishing village on the Suffolk coast, which served as Britten’s self-enclosed workshop and his platform to the world. Wagner, of course, had his royally financed temple to himself at Bayreuth. In one corner, the noisy German revolutionary determined to bend the future of opera to his grandiose vision; in the other, the quiet English pacifist who declared, “What we should aim at [is] pleasing people today as seriously as we can, and letting the future look after itself.”
But Britten and Wagner have more in common than is at first apparent. The key phrase in Britten’s remark is “as seriously as we can”—a signal that behind the Englishman’s modesty is a high-mindedness as steely as the German’s. In his music for adults, Britten never aimed for pure pleasure: In the eerie sensuousness of his harmonies, the quirkiness of his rhythms, there’s always the implication of something awry, something that needs setting right. As with Wagner, the music stings with the inevitability of a moral rebuke.
Britten’s third full-scale opera, Albert Herring had its premiere at Glyndebourne in 1947, a year after the disappointing reception of The Rape of Lucretia. The composer and his librettist, Eric Crozier, were hoping for a crowd-pleaser when they adapted “Madame Husson’s May King,” a Maupassant short story about a provincial May Festival at which a shy grocery clerk is crowned because none of the local girls are deemed virtuous enough. During the festivities, the mortified fellow gets drunk, which sets off a rampage of belated self-assertion.
Maupassant’s story has a tart French flavor: The clerk becomes a lifelong drunk. Britten transferred the tale to provincial England and gave it a happy ending. In Albert Herring, the misfit is not drowned for his transgressions (as in Peter Grimes), but set free: Alcohol makes a man of the simpleton, liberating him from the stifling clutches of his elders.
Like his friend Shostakovich, Britten had a formidable gift for musical satire, and Albert Herring, the composer’s only out-and-out comedy, carries as much sting as his earlier tragic work. He skewers the pomposity of the town elders, led by the autocratic Lady Billows, by associating them with a barrage of popular conventions, from Victorian mawkishness to brass-band bluster. At the same time, he reminds us of the inspiring, subversive force of innocence (a theme that runs right through his operas) by giving cheeky chants to the village children. Perhaps nobody but Britten could have come up with the delicious mating call that the sexually robust butcher’s assistant, Sid, makes to the sexually willing baker’s girl, Nancy—a serenade whistled, not sung.
Like most of Britten’s works for the stage, Albert Herring is a chamber opera designed to be performed by a small cast and a minimal orchestra in an intimate space. It was something of a staple at New York City Opera in the 1960’s and 70’s, where, as I recall, it had no trouble filling up the inhospitable State Theater with its bustle and charm. But it hasn’t been seen hereabouts for 30 years, until its current revival by the Gotham Chamber Opera at the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side. (The final performance is Feb. 18.) Once again, this resourceful company has unearthed and polished to a fine shine a relatively obscure operatic treasure. The Gotham’s artistic director, Neal Goren, leads a vibrant and thoroughly knowing performance onstage and in the pit, where he conducts a 14-piece orchestra.
The company’s Albert Herring is a must-see for people (like me) who find increasing emotional richness in the music of the most insinuating—as opposed to ingratiating—opera composer of the last century. And yet it’s not an easy night at the opera. Britten remarked that he wrote “music, now, in Aldeburgh, for people living there, and further afield, indeed for anyone who cares to play it or listen to it.” Coming after the more spacious concerns of Grimes and Lucretia, Albert Herring applies that let’s-put-on-a-show mentality to a fault. Britten didn’t invite music critics to the opening night at Glyndebourne, as though their worldliness would corrupt the innocence of his village comedy.
On this opening night, the Gotham company, directed by David Schweizer, threw innocence to the wind in favor of a cartoonish bluntness that had all the subtlety of a valentine from one of the ruder Internet sites. The décor for Lady Billows’ breakfast room, as conceived by scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez, was a stage-wide Union Jack of white stripes against a background of shocking pink. To me, the color suggested less the bucolic sweetness of a May Festival than the triangular patches worn by homosexuals rounded up and gassed by the Nazis—a not-so-subliminal reference, perhaps, to the stigma that Britten endured for feeling “the love that dares not speak its name.”
With the exception of a wonderful trio of children from the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus (Cara Fesjian, Madeline Weinstein and Peter Goldsmith)—and also Timothy Kuhn and Leah Wool as a sweetly affecting Sid and Nancy—the well-trained young cast belted out the arias and ensembles with a gusto that had me checking for the exit signs. As my ears were being pinned back by the take-no-prisoners Lady Billows of Karen Huffstodt, I glanced at the artists’ biographies and wasn’t surprised to read that she has sung Turandot, Elektra, and Brünnhilde in international houses 10 times the size of the 350-seat Harry de Jur Playhouse. In the title role, Matt Morgan was costumed like Harold Lloyd in The Freshman—a wide-eyed ninny in knee-pants. Somehow, a winning sturdiness of spirit finally shone through the caricature, just in time for him to demonstrate his liberation by tossing the May Day crown into the audience.
The real source of my discomfort wasn’t the excesses of the production, but rather the work itself. The precocious Britten was still in his early 30’s when he wrote Albert Herring; he was just entering his most effulgent phase. As the satire piles up and the plot creaks to its tendentious conclusion, the score mounts with an invention that far exceeds what it’s being inventive about. While the errant lad is out on the town, Nancy and Sid and the elders sing a threnody on the assumption that poor Albert is dead. Their nine-voice lament, written over a throbbing ostinato, is one of the most magnificent vocal ensemble pieces that Britten—a master of choral effects—ever wrote. It was presumably intended to show that even the most bourgeois among us are capable of expressing real feeling (though not for long). But what it really shows is that the music Britten composed for his village comedy was, in its startling sophistication, more than this “innocent” little vehicle could bear.