Albert Herring is based – very loosely – on a short story by Guy de Maupassant, Le rosier de Madame Husson. It is a portrait of provincial French life. An absurdly patriotic local doctor tells his friend the story of Isidore – a timid youth – who is crowned May King in the absence of any girl virtuous enough to be crowned May Queen, but who then disgraces himself by getting obscenely drunk on his 500 franc prize money. In Britten’s opera, the town of Gisors becomes the Suffolk village of Loxford, the myopic self-regard of the Norman middle class translates into the small-minded snobbery of a rural East Anglian community, and Isidore – passive, non-speaking cipher – becomes Albert Herring – much nagged and inhibited, but who finally and spectacularly discovers his voice. Britten and his librettist Eric Crozier are more involved with the character and fate of Albert than Maupassant is with Isidore. Isidore becomes a useless alcoholic and dies – ‘dans une crise de delirium tremens, naturellement’. But Albert is strengthened by his post-coronation experiences, speaks up for himself, at last defies his oppressive mother and stands up to the angry condemnation of Lady Billows, Loxford’s local moral guardian.
Albert Herring was composed in the late 1940s, during Clement Atlee’s reformist Labour administration. As Paul Kildea observes in his biography of the composer ‘Labour was promising a lot … the successful demobilisation of servicemen and women; jobs for all; world peace; education and welfare reform; a tax-funded national health system; town planning; nuclear defence; the nationalisation of major industries …’ Albert knows very little about any of this, but it is tempting to see his emancipation in the context of a national impatience with the status quo. There was a fear that under a Conservative government, change and progress would be resisted, and the freedoms and opportunities suggested by wartime endeavour, by the sense that the country was ‘all in it together’ – would be lost.
Albert Herring is not in any overt way a political piece, but it is alive to the sense of possibility. A comic collision between an inflexible authority and the irrepressibly Dionysian appetites of the people of Loxford reminds us of Malvolio’s clash with Sir Toby and ‘the lighter people’ in Twelfth Night. Britten’s opera is very much on the side of the lighter people. Albert has had to put up with too much and needs a break. The village boys and girls have been having their fun, but now it’s Albert’s turn. We never quite find out what he got up to after the coronation, but whatever it was, he comes back a stronger, more confident, curiously liberated man. The war is over! As the children sing at the end of the opera ‘Albert’s come back to stay, Better for his holiday’.
Los Nacimientos is a new, interdisciplinary dance/ theatre piece created in collaboration with dotdotdot dance. The piece itself began life as a song cycle – a setting of texts by the Nobel prize-winning Chilean revolutionary poet Pablo Neruda. The original cycle consisted of five settings of some of his most beautiful and sensuous texts, and has been performed on numerous occasions both in the UK and abroad by the excellent Canadian-British soprano Gillian Keith and superb pianist John Reid.
When I first encountered the poems of Neruda, I was struck not only by the sheer beauty of the words, but also by their immense strength and vitality. While it is clear that Neruda’s more politicised verses were capable of uniting a nation, his more intimate, romantic poems are every bit as powerful. Another aspect of his poetry is the fact that they are, in themselves, so very musical. The lightness and lyricism of his words made it a joy to set to music.
Although the song cycle in its original form had been received very successfully, it was after seeing a performance by dotdotdot dance at in the Buxton Fringe festival that the idea was hatched to work with them and put these two elements – 21st century Art Song and flamenco infused choreography – together. The ensuing result is the piece entitled Los Nacimientos (The Births). The title is taken from another of Neruda’s poems.
Since meeting with dotdotdot dance, the work has been expanded. Two new songs were added to the original set of five, and four piano interludes, called ‘Capitulos’ (‘Chapters’) were written to be interspersed among the sung poems. As Nerudas poems are so full of fantastic imagery, many of which focus on the elemental, we can expect to see choreography of immense strength and power to compliment an equally dynamic musical performance.
The goal of Los Nacimientos is to a forge a new type of theatre combining music, dance, sound and vision into a cohesive whole and bring to life the incredible verses of Pablo Neruda in a way never before seen. We hope that those already familiar with Neruda will welcome the chance to revisit his work in a brand new way, and for those encountering his poems for the first time, I can promise an extraordinary and unforgettable evening.
Los Nacimientos will be performed at the Pavilion Arts Centre on Saturday 15 and Saturday 22 July at 7.30pm.
Director Elijah Moshinsky on the ‘propulsive vitality and rough originality’ of Verdi’s first Macbeth
The early operas of Verdi are a unique genre. Often derided for their naivety or crude directness, they are neglected in relation to his more expansive and complex works which have found a permanent place in the repertoire of every opera house.
I aim to explore these neglected works. Macbeth is a particularly interesting example of an early opera composed in1847 which was then revised by Verdi in 1865. The first performances were written for the Teatro Pergola in Florence, a small theatre – about the same size as Buxton Opera House – and the later Macbeth was commissioned for the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris which was a large House boasting a chorus of over a hundred and a large orchestra. Much of the opera was rewritten to accommodate this larger scale and an extended ballet sequence was added. There is no doubt that the later version has many improved developments in style, sweep and colour. The new numbers show the progression of Verdi’s ability to express more sophisticated emotional range but the first one shows us Verdi’s direct attempt to write a Shakespearean opera. It is the earlier version that has propulsive vitality and rough originality. This is Verdi’s anti-bel canto opera, the one that he wants to be sung at times almost as speech: ‘The plot is taken from one of the greatest tragedies the theatre boasts, and I have tried to have it well verified, and to give it a new texture, and to compose music tied as far as possible to the text and to the situations’.
Verdi had a close friend in Guilin Carcano who was translating Shakespeare into Italian, and in 1846 he read to Verdi the play of Macbeth. This clearly gripped the composer’s mind and he immediately recommended it as a subject for his commission in Florence and in 1847 Verdi actually saw a performance of Macready’s production in London.
But what we see in the opera is Shakespeare as performed through the traditions of nineteenth century theatre. One particular part of that tradition survives in this early version in the final death aria of Macbeth which is derived from David Garrick’s idea to write himself a stirring climactic death speech, because he believed Shakespeare did not provide Macbeth with a good ending. The librettist, Francesco Mario Piave, simply followed current performance practice. By the time Verdi rewrote it for Paris the taste had changed and Verdi was asked for a heroic chorus of one hundred bards to hail Malcolm’s victory.
So what is remarkable about this first version?
- It captures in operatic form much of the essence of Shakespeare’s drama.
- It has the dramatic compression of Verdi’s early works.Constant contrasts used to create drama.
- A use of music and text which seems to us unsophisticated but cumulatively building to a complex piece of theatre.
- Directness in presenting the drama.
Verdi laid great emphasis on simplicity: the characters should stand out clearly; the changes in their fortunes or situations should be readily grasped. With this subject he attempted to dramatise the horror and darkness of regicide. But this play had a supernatural element in the witches which connected the action. Verdi wrote to Piave: ‘The subject is neither political or religious; it is fantastical’.
The opera is not about the rise of a modern fascist nor is it about political tyranny. It is a study in character, about ambition for power, a toxic marriage which leads to the inner destruction of the protagonists and the descent of the world into chaos.