Britten: Albert Herring (Bedford, Northern Sinfonia, Gillett, Palmer) CD
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Britten: Albert Herring
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'The chief reason for acquiring this set is the warm, rich playing of the Northern Sinfonia; and for Steuart Bedford, who offers an interpretation that is more than a carbon-copy of the Master's own.' April 2003 --BBC Music Magazine, November 2013
Top customer reviews
The opera is genuinely funny, much lighter than Britten`s serious works but no less musically complex and rewarding; Britten had fun with the story as there was more than a hint of identification with Albert, who uses his financial reward to rebel and assert himself in the face of his domineering mother, with suitably amusing results.
I opted for this recording over the Britten/Peers original as I have a bit of an aversion to Peers` vocal style, but I think this is a pretty good choice; Gillett carries the part well and Josephine Barstow makes an imposing Lady Billows.
The singers and the players of the Northern Sinfonia are under the sure direction of Steuart Bedford in a clear, well-balanced recording.
The booklet contains notes and synopsis in English, French and German and a full English libretto.
I note that this Collins Classic recording has been re-released on Naxos, also with a full libretto, but this edition - which comes in a box jewel case - is the version of the recording I own.
The disc running times are 64.31 minutes and 77.22 minutes, discs 1 & 2 respectively.
Luckily Benjamin Britten and Eric Crozier got rid of this impossible extreme war against anything divine just as well as Maupassant’s hatred of anything English seen as the main enemy, the only enemy, the empire of Satan and all his devils and witches along with Lucifer, Mephistopheles and many others. Listen to that jingoist brave and warmongering anti-British absurdity of a character for sure but reflecting the atmosphere of Maupassant’s time and the phenomenal fight between the British and the French colonial empires. Maupassant was a real jingo indeed [...]
"The spirit of provincialism, my friend, is nothing but natural patriotism," he said. "I love my house, my town and my province because I discover in them the customs of my own village; but if I love my country, if I become angry when a neighbor sets foot in it, it is because I feel that my home is in danger, because the frontier that I do not know is the high road to my province. For instance, I am a Norman, a true Norman; well, in spite of my hatred of the German and my desire for revenge, I do not detest them, I do not hate them by instinct as I hate the English, the real, hereditary natural enemy of the Normans; for the English traversed this soil inhabited by my ancestors, plundered and ravaged it twenty times, and my aversion to this perfidious people was transmitted to me at birth by my father. See, here is the statue of the general." . . .
“I also learned that Clothaire II had given the patrimony of Gisors to his cousin, Saint Romain, bishop of Rouen; that Gisors ceased to be the capital of the whole of Vexin after the treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte; that the town is the chief strategic centre of all that portion of France, and that in consequence of this advantage she was taken and retaken over and over again. At the command of William the Red, the eminent engineer, Robert de Bellesme, constructed there a powerful fortress that was attacked later by Louis le Gros, then by the Norman barons, was defended by Robert de Candos, was finally ceded to Louis le Gros by Geoffry Plantagenet, was retaken by the English in consequence of the treachery of the Knights-Templars, was contested by Philippe-Augustus and Richard the Lionhearted, was set on fire by Edward III of England, who could not take the castle, was again taken by the English in 1419, restored later to Charles VIII by Richard de Marbury, was taken by the Duke of Calabria occupied by the League, inhabited by Henry IV, etc., etc.
And Marambot, eager and almost eloquent, continued:
"What beggars, those English! And what sots, my boy; they are all 'Rosiers,' those hypocrites!" [...]
So, as you can see the French, and Guy de Maupassant first of all, voted for Brexit a long time before the English did. Britten and Crozier expurgated that mud out of the story and transplanted the plot to England in a city named Loxford, some mythical city that could be London and Oxford, London the real capital and Oxford the intellectual capital, both of England.
Then they moved the campaign from the hands of some old virginal spinster to a local Lady, hence a representative of the local aristocracy that is helped in her newborn campaign against pleasure and enjoyment, particularly physical and hormonal, by the local Vicar Mr. Gedge, but also by the local Superintendent Mr. Budd, the local Mayor Mr. Upford and the local Head Mistress from the school Miss Wordsworth. Then the satire is against the five basic institutions of England, and it could be any country after all, namely the aristocracy, the church of England (and the Christian religion), the police, politicians (in this case the city council) and the school system. That is a lot more pertinent and impertinent too than what Guy de Maupassant imagined.
Then our composer and author invent all kinds of names that are funny in many ways but they make the story both believable and in many ways plausible. Of course Albert Herring is nothing but a red herring (A “red herring” is something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important issue. It may be either a logical fallacy or a literary device that leads readers or audiences towards a false conclusion) but the story does not lead that poor young man to perdition in alcoholism and death in delirium tremens like in Maupassant’s short story, but just to only one night of escape and come back in the morning. In other words it is a very simple prodigal son though he leaves with 30 pounds and comes back with 27, which is very reasonable for a prodigal son. Maupassant’s Isidore lost all his money and even his heirloom silver watch after a week or so of complete drunkenness he will never manage to override and leave behind.
The next change, and that is a deep change in the line of Britten’s themes, is the relation between the young man Albert and his mother. His mother is actually present in the opera and she is an obvious control freak, and that is a theme Britten will work on regularly and maybe all his life? Mothers are most of the time absent or power freaks with the exception of Curfew River in which the son was abducted by a male stranger or foreigner and the mother is running after them to finally cross the Curfew River to find her son’s tomb on the other side next to a church or chapel. And we could wonder why she did not prevent that abduction. But she is obviously tortured by the event. But Britten and Crozier bring the mother to reason at the end of this opera buffa and the transmuted, transformed and transfigured son Albert is finally able to tell her to stop bothering him with a short, curt and brief “That’ll do, Mum.”
So we do not have the tale of perdition that Maupassant imagined. We have a tale of salvation from imposed innocence, imposed blindness, imposed dullness and the discovery that plain simple pleasures are something you have to experience once in your life and then bring them under control and know that you can drink a little bit, you van have and make love from time to time and you can have other simple pleasures like a peach and the best way to appreciate the taste of a peach is to pass the basket around and give a peach to all the kids just to share the pleasure, though our Albert seems promised to have some competition with Sid concerning Nancy who seems to be wavering between Sid and the redeemed Albert who is maybe after all not a red herring at all but might be promised to a brighter future. Let’s hope he will not turn into a carnivorous if not cannibalistic pike.
Of course then we have to wonder what makes this Opera Buffa a real masterwork. And that’s the music of course.
The music never stop and intermissionS are in fact musical interludes. The music is extremely dynamic with singers mixing their voices and their lines into choruses at times, duets and other small groups of coordinated singing, but also and quite often a group of characters, all of them most of the time sing together one on top of the others, or one line between the lines of someone else, etc. We have a real sensation of having a crowd in front of us, a rowdy and excited crowd. Many of the songs and tunes are simple and rather joyous, dynamic and even popular in many ways. We could easily get up to them and sing along. This is typical of Comic Opera or Opera Buffa, just as much as of pantomimes and I must say quite in the long tradition of the English stage, since Shakespeare and even before with medieval mysteries for example, or Elizabethan masques. This mixture of simple music and dancing in between the scenes of a play will still be alive and strong under Henry Purcell, thus surviving the Commonwealth, and even under George F. Handel. That gives to this opera a joyful and extremely pleasant sound and look.
In the third act Britten manages to create a real funeral wake for the supposedly dead and lost Albert and this wake becomes little by little more and more sinister with songs that are more dirges, a threnody, even a requiem to poor Albert that suddenly pops up hardly soiled and hurt by his night of evil adventure, though apart from the drink and the fights we do not get much detail. The prodigal son is after all discreet, modest, bashful, still shy and we could even say demure if Albert were a woman. Dies Irae Dies Illa, indeed.
What’s more any stage production is easy with such an opera buffa that does not require any hard and complex interpretation and the creation of a stage universe to make the meaning explicit.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU
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