Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "Celebrating Liberation" (on Eric Crozier and Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring)

celebrating liberation
by Douglas Messerli

Eric Crozier (text, based on a story by Guy de Maupassant), Benjamin Britten (composer) Albert Herring / the performance I saw was at the LAOpera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, March 11, 2012

Benjamin Britten's comic opera, Albert Herring, as most critics have noted, is a rather light entertainment that, over the years, has been revealed to have darker and more profound messages beneath it. The excellent recent production of the LA Opera hints at a few of those more meaningful moments, but skim over some of the most important implications.

On the surface Britten's fourth operatic work reads a bit like a Ronald Firbank story or like other works of the British dialogue fictions, filled with typological figures. Lady Billows (Janis Kelly in the production I saw) is just what her title suggests, an elderly autocrat, who literary "bellows" to all those about, demanding virginal girls and normative behavior. Her housekeeper, Florence Pike (played by Ronnita Nicole Miller) is a uppity slacker who keeps a sacred diary of all the village of Loxford's goings on, including the misbehaviors of nearly every young girl in town. Along with the head teacher, Miss Wordsworth (Stacey Tappan), the Mayor, Mr. Gedge (Jonathan Michie), and the Police Superintendent Budd (Richard Bernstein), these figures attempt to maintain the traditional moral values—however they might be defined—for all Loxford figures, particularly the feminine sex, whose virtuous model is celebrated each year in their choice for May Queen.

The opera begins with the meeting of these important city figures, attempting to decide upon which young woman they will bestow this year's award. As they run through each of their lists, however, it becomes apparent from Florence's diary that none of the village girls is above recrimination, even though some crimes are no more important than where they wear the hems of their dress. Others have stayed out all night in barns, run off with boyfriends, or simply been gossiped about. In distress, the quintet struggles about their inability to make a choice until one of their members suggests a May King, all ultimately agreeing that the only choice can be Albert Herring, a woman shopkeeper's son, who has been carefully obedient to his mother. There is also a sizeable purse attached to the award, which pleases Albert's mother far more than he when the group announce their choice.

At first Albert is seen as simply a do-gooder, with no personality whatsoever. But by the second scene of Act I, we begin to see him question his allegiance to obedience, and, comparing himself with the fun-loving and sexually busy couple, Sid and Nancy, realizing that he has nothing to show for remaining a mother's boy.
Putting Albert on display, the town leaders could care less about Albert's feelings or any reality he might be experiencing within, dressing him in white and awarding him an absurdly orange wreath, which he is forced to wear throughout the luncheon. But Sid has other plans for Albert, with Nancy spiking Albert's lemonade with rum, an event which begins a series of adventures for our "hero" that ends, after another self-analysis of his life, with Albert going off into the evening to discover the life he has never before experienced.

Meanwhile, the village, having noted his absence, is in a tizzy about his whereabouts, the hypocritical quintet of village elders meeting to lament what appears is his death. When Albert does reappear at the very moment that the others sing piously (and quite beautifully) about dying, he is shockingly filthy, having spent the night in at least two pubs and, after being thrown out of both, slept for some hours in the gutter. He has also been with two women and (more mysteriously) with a man. The sexuality of those situations is not quite established except for Albert's own admission that he has done everything to which he admits "and worse," and that "it wasn't much fun." The audience's imagination is important here, for how one defines "worse" would lead us to perceive how deep his rebellion against the Victorian notions of the community leaders has gone. Certainly he is no longer in thrall to any of them, particularly to his mother, as he virtually tosses the city leaders out of his shop so that he can get on with his business. Whatever that business may now be is uncertain; but it is clear that Albert has made a big transformation, as he rewards the children candies and graciously hands a peach to Nancy.

Conductor James Conlon argues that the exact nature of his transgressions must remain vague. And probably that was what Britten also intended. But we must remember that, although he lived much of his life as an open homosexual, for Britten it might have difficult to more thoroughly explore the issue in small town life of 1947. Today, I would have, at least, liked a little more of the possibility of Arthur exploring something beyond heterosexual experiences. For that might even have made him a kind of exceptional figure in Loxford history.

As it stands, Albert is simply a slow learner, a man who waited far too long to come to terms with any sexuality. Perhaps if we understood it as an truly exceptional sexual variance, we might be better able to explain Albert's slow awakening instead of merely explaining him as a kind of village simpleton or, as several characters describe him, not very bright. Let us hope at least that after his night of revelry he does not remain as a greengrocer for the rest of his life!

Los Angeles, March 13, 2012

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