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’.