Tag Archives: Benjamin Britten

Albert Herring (far right) is told no uncertain terms that he must be the May King. Photo: Robert Workman


Albert Herring, music: Benjamin Britten, libretto:Eric Crozier, seen at The Grange Festival , June 25 2017

Why did Benjamin Britten not write more comedy operas? On the evidence of this Grange Festival production he was clearly seriously good at being funny and clever at the same time. Was Britten afraid of not being taken seriously?

Benjamin Britten is in my book the (world’s) most versatile opera composer from the post-war era. Peter Grimes is a tragic masterpiece. The Turn of the Screw is that rare thing: a ghost story that improves when set to music. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a respectful adaptation of Shakespeare with some highly individual music. Death in Venice manages to add an extra dimension to Thomas Mann’s obsessive and creepy tale about a professor pursuing an underage boy. Comedy and opera all too often strange and even uncomfortable bedfellows (comedy is better suited to operettas and musicals). But Britten was a composer who could turn his hand to seemingly anything.

This new production of Albert Herring at the Grange Festival in Hampshire makes it clear that comedy suited him very well. Yes, this production is new, but a couple of people on the team are the world’s most experienced Britten experts. They could have done this in their sleep. Luckily they are wide awake and still very much on the ball. The 83-year old director John Copley directs  worked with Britten\s company as a young man (and was kicked out after a few years). He has directed Albert Herring many times in different countries. The 87-year old conductor  Steuart Bedford’s mother was part of the original cast of both The Rape of Lucretia and  Albert Herring.  Bedford has during his long career conducted all of Britten’s operas and recorded Herring for the Naxos label. With these veterans on board this Grange Festival production was practically unsinkable.

Lady Billows (Orla Boylan) takes advice from her housekeeper (Clarissa Meek) photographer: Robert Workman

Eric Crozier directed Benjamin Britten’s first opera Peter Grimes in 1945 and then took on the same duties for the next opera, The Rape of Lucretia. To his surprise Crozier was then asked by Britten to come up with some ideas for a comedy. Crozier suggested Guy de Maupassant’s novella Le Rosier de Madame Husson. Britten liked the idea that it could easily be transposed from its original Normandy setting to East Suffolk, where the composer grew up. Britten then gave the somewhat astonished Crozier the job of librettist. It is clear that Crozier and Britten worked together very closely. Crozier helped Britten  to reveal the characters through the music.

Peter Grimes is set in a fictive fishing village in Suffolk. The location is reminiscent of Aldeburgh, the town where Britten lived and established his own festival. In Albert Herring the action takes place in a village called Loxford. The similarities with Yorford in East Suffolk, not far from where Britten grew up, are not incidental.

The overbearing and snobbish Lady Billows  has invited  local dignitaries to her manor to deliberate the candidate for the the title of May Queen. The Superintendent,  the head teacher at the church school, the vicar  and the Mayor mention a number of virtuous and chaste young girls that seem perfectly suitable. But Lady Billow, who is the main sponsor,  follows her stern housekeeper’s advice and turns them all down. Therefore the decision is made to pick a May King. The shy, innocent and fairly simple  greengrocer’s son Albert Herring is deemed to be a perfect candidate.  Albert demurs but his totally domineering mother is not going to give up on the  prize money. Albert is under her thumb and gives in. At the May Fest things start to go off the rails. Albert’s lemonade is spiked with rum by the mischievous butcher’s boy who hopes that it will loosen up the teetotal greengrocer’s assistant. The potion begins to work and the orchestra responds with variations on Wagner’s magical Tristan chord. This is typical of Britten’s,  at times, brilliant pastiches in this score. In the first act he dips into parlour music, there are children’s ditties, beguiling  easy-on-the-ear love music, there is cheeky whistling and Alban Berg also makes an appearance. There are even shades of Verdi’s Falstaff in the last act.

This Sid Tim Nelson) and Nancy(Kitty Whateley) couple are not into punk music. Photo: Robert Workman

Albert has become quite tipsy from the rum punch, but when he overhears  the butcher’s boy Sid and  the baker’s daughter Nancy canoodling he decides that it is time for him to break free.  The next day Albert doesn’t turn up for work and everybody is worried. When the wreath with which Albert was crowned is found, crushed by a cart, everybody fears the worst.  Albert is assumed dead and the May King organisers join Albert’s mother to  sing a heartfelt threnody. Suddenly the lamented son just wanders in, his virgin-white suit all soiled, but clearly happy. He has had a drunken good night. lost his virginity and thanks the commission for is financial contribution to it all.  This shocking confession leads to his title being retracted. Albert doesn’t care, his newly found freedom has changed his outlook totally. Nancy is a bit smitten by the liberated Albert. In an act of biblical  symbolism Albert ends up giving away the apples and peaches from the shop to the children who happily take a bite. It is a happy ending (as opposed to the de Maupassant original).

Albert in the virgin-white suit of the May King.
Photo: Robert Workman

The 13 singers and 13 musicians (with some of them doubling up on instruments) show off a real sense of ensemble spirit. You can feel that the cast enjoy performing this opera. The lament for Albert in act three is a beautiful piece of writing and sung with verve..  Because Albert Herring is a comedy we can laugh about it but  if this threnody were to feature in a tragic opera it would fill you with sadness.

Richard Pinkstone (Albert Herring)  in the lead is a believable mother’s boy with a suitably pleasant voice. Herring overhears Sid and Nancy taking the mickey out of him and Pinkstone could emphasize his sexual awakening and frustration a bit more, but otherwise this is a remarkably confident display from a relatively inexperienced singer. I also liked soprano Anna Gillingham’s insecure school mistress Miss Wordsworth and she is a talent to keep an eye on.  The Irish soprano Orla Boylan  (Lady Billows) is asked to act much older than her age and does she pull it off! Hers is the standout performance of this show and she manages to make a wonderful meal out of the old bag’s mixed up speech at the May fest.

It is good to see that young singers here get a chance to sing  meaty roles.  The International Singing Competition that the Grange festival organises in September provides a wonderful opportunity for talent to filter through and next year we will hopefully hear some of the  winners.

Steuart Bedford probably knows this score backwards and the very versatile Aurora Orchestra is the right fit for this chamber work that incorporates so many different musical styles. There are some tricky passages and quite a few  sound effects (whistling, various clocks and bells).  Then there is  the strangely contemplative interlude (or ballet) between act two and three, but it all adds up to a very original opera score.

Remaining performances June 29, July 1,7,9

The Grange,  Hampshire, Alresford. SO24 9TG



Highly relevant Death in Venice

Benjamin Britten’s last opera, seen at Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 23 June 2015

Celestin Boutin (Tadzio), Paul Nilon (Aschenbach) credit Clive Barda
DEATH in VENICE by Britten Garsington Opera at Wormsley Choreographer Andreas Heise © CLIVE BARDA/ ArenaPAL

Benjamin Britten composed Death in Venice, based on Thomas Mann’s much admired novella, knowing that he didn’t have long to live. He prioritised composing the opera over the need to undergo open-heart surgery.

In the spring of 1973 he finished Death in Venice and only then admitted himself to hospital. After the operation he was still too unwell to attend the opening night. The pressure that Britten put himself under to finish the work is quite revealing and relevant to the interpretation of the work. Did he have something to get off his chest?

Luchino Visconti’s film version of Death in Venice (1971) I saw as a young adult. Particularly Dirk Bogarde playing the novelist Gustav von Aschenbach made a lasting impression. The director’s marvelous use of the Adagietto from the 5th Symphony inspired me to explore Gustav Mahler’s music and I am grateful to Visconti for that. I found out that Thomas Mann had based some traits of the Aschenbach character on Mahler, who he had once met. Mann learnt of Mahler’s death while working on his novella in Venice in June 1911 and it greatly saddened him. Britten was also a great admirer of Mahler’s music.

But when I revisited Visconti’s film a decade ago I found it sentimental, slow and morally quite hard to stomach. I was not familiar with Britten’s opera, but to say that I was apprehensive about seeing an opera on the same subject is an understatement. Luckily Garsington Opera persuaded me to experience their splendid new production. Now I know that Britten together with his librettist Myfanwy Piper composed an adaptation of the novel that intellectually is much more satisfying than Visconti’s film.

Benjamin Britten was still recovering from heart surgery and a stroke when Death in Venice had its world premiere in June 1973. Britten’s assistant Steuart Bedford was given his international break. Bedford proceeded to conduct the first recording of the work as well with Britten’s life partner Peter Pears, for whom the role was created, in the lead. Bedford is alive and well and now musically in charge of Garsington Opera’s new production. I can’t think of anyone else who is better suited for the job.

William Dazeley (Elderly Fop), Paul Nilon (Aschenbach) credit Clive Barda
DEATH in VENICE by Britten, Garsington Opera at Wormsley, Gustav von Aschenbach – Paul Nilon – The Traveller – William Dazeley © CLIVE BARDA/ ArenaPAL

Some of the members  of the Garsington Opera Orchestra have been performing together for some 20 years but they only get together for  three months a year. They certainly don’t sound like a temporary band and they need to be on their toes for Britten’s work. The score is quite tricky with exotic rhythms and dodecaphony thrown in for good measure. I know, the restraint is deliberate but in my ears various bits seem a touch too ‘under orchestrated’.

Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that there is only one passage with an orchestral tutti and the fragmentation doesn’t always seem to serve a real purpose.

Sreuart Bedford has total confidence in the work, paces it calmly, adds fluency and holds it all together, while at the same time guiding some of the less experienced singers and dancers.

Garsington Opera at Wormsley
Garsington Opera at Wormsley  photo:Albert Ehrnrooth

The libretto is quite faithful to Mann’s surprisingly complex novella. Gustav von Aschenbach ( Paul Nilon) suffers writer’s block and decides to visit La Serenissima where surely the inspiration will start to flow. On board a ship to Venice the ageing novelist meets a simpering, extremely irritating fop who fancies strapping young men. At the end we discover that we have seen a mirror image of von Aschenbach’s fate. He will become a foppish figure himself.

As soon as Aschenbach arrives in Venice messengers of Death begin to pop up everywhere. The sinister gondolier who takes Gustav to the Venice Lido surely is Charon, the ferryman of Hades. Then there is the hotel manager, the hotel barber and various other ill-boding and even menacing characters that are all performed by one and the same bass-baritone. At Garsington these roles were taken by the excellent and versatile William Dazeley.

Celestin Boutin (Tadzio), Chris Agius Darmanin (Jaschiu) credit Clive Barda
Lighting Designer Bruno Poet Choreographer Andreas Heise © CLIVE BARDA/ ArenaPAL

A young Polish family staying at the same grand hotel fascinates Von Aschenbach. Very soon he realises that he has become infatuated with the teenaged son, Tadizio. In the novel and the opera Tadizio very much embodies the Greek ideal of beauty. Perhaps he is also Hermes, the God who guides the recently deceased to the afterlife. The contrast between Apollonian and the Dionysian aspects, or in other words measure and harmony set against unbridled passion and excess, is what also made Britten tick. Aschenbach’s dream sees Apollo and Dionysos battling it out to win the writer’s soul and the (unhealthy) sexual tension is not held back in this production. Aschenbach thinks he is self-disciplined and in control, but Dionysus (William Dazeley ) stirs his uncontrollable feelings and obsession with Tadizio.

In the book Tadizio never speaks and in the opera he also remains mute. Britten’s brilliant move is to turn the Polish family into dancers. To stress the boy’s ‘otherness’ he is often accompanied by pitched percussion instruments and quite taut music which contrasts with von Aschenbach’s more dynamic and diverse accompaniment . For the beach games and children’s play Britten creates an exotic sound reminiscent of the Balinese gamelan.

Britten also incorporated the sounds distinct to Venice. He took note of the popular songs and calls of the gondoliers and incorporated them in the score. During the boat trip a scrubbing brush is deployed very effectively on the snare drum to mimic a ship’s steam engine. There are many similar instances.

When a cholera epidemic breaks out in Venice people start to leave but von Aschenbach chooses to stay so he can follow the Polish family around the city. The weather is sultry and his dreams become feverish and obsessive. After a rejuvenation make-over at the barber’s he looks like a fool. Tadizio for the first time acknowledges him but at the same time laughs at him. It all ends in tragedy. Or does it? Some people would argue that the ‘sick’ von Aschenbach gets what he deserves for being a pervert.

Britten  identified himself with von Aschenbach in many different respects. There are too many pompous Greek mythology references that perhaps try to present a more respectable, Hellenistic angle on paedophilia. But after the Jimmy Savile scandal and the avalanche of sex abuse trials we have a less forgiving view on these issues than people had 40 years ago.

Britten was without a doubt attracted to underage boys and his behavior at times showed a paedophilic inclination. There is no suggestion that he ever overstepped the mark and none of the boys (nor their parents) that he liked to host at home ever complained. It seems that Britten managed to successfully repress his sexual inclinations in that respect. Could it be that Britten’s insistence on finishing off his adaptation of Mann’s novella before undergoing the heart surgery was his way of dealing with sexual desires that he morally felt uncomfortable with? In a way Death in Venice, with all the moral questions it asks, is today even more relevant than 40 years ago.

Visconti’s film made Björn Andrésen ( in the role of Tadizio) quite famous and he was much admired for his blond and blue-eyed, cool Scandinavian looks. Celestin Boutin who gets to dance the same part in the opera is not bad looking either and he has a nicely toned body. Just like the other dancers he is clearly not a minor. Boutin has just completed his studies at Ellison Ballet in New York and here he gets to show off in many solos. Boutin doesn’t possess natural grace, but he compensates with muscular flexibility and athletic poise.

For female singers there isn’t an awful lot to do in this opera but the choir gets to mill around a fair bit. The staging is straightforward and economical. There is nothing wrong with that (except for the backdrop of the Venetian sky, which I find unconvincing). I loved the large white voile(?) curtains that can be pulled across the stage to create shadowy figures, secrecy and successfully evokes the rippling effect of lapping waves or the arrival of the dusty scirocco wind.

Paul Nilon as Gustav von Aschebach is without a doubt the star of the show. His characterization is excellent and he really inhabits the role, revealing new layers in scene after scene. The many recitatives are inspired by 17th century technique where the rhythmic profile is not determined. The singer is given quite a lot of freedom and Nilon nails it. The high lying lyrical lines pose no problem and his deep colouring is also very solid.

Finally I would like to thank the sun for making an appearance. Yes, the natural light really adds a special ‘summery feel’ to the staging, something that never could be achieved in an ordinary theatre. Venice was Britten’s second (after Suffolk) favourite place and there are moments when the serene magic of that city seems to radiate across the stage.


Patrons in evening dress strolling and picnicking GARSINGTON OPERA at Wormsley © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL



Every year over a period of seven weeks Garsington Opera at Wormsley park (just off the M40 between Oxford and High Wycombe) stages four different operas. The whole costly operation is run completely with the help of private funding and donations by foundations.

Garsington Opera’s Pavillion at Wormsley Park (owned by the Getty family) was designed by architect Robin Snell and is worth a visit in itself. The construction is very clever and was surprisingly ‘cheap’ to build ( £1.8 million in 2010). Incredibly the auditorium can be put up and pulled down in a matter of weeks, but It has remained in place since it was first built. The Pavillion does have a Japanese feel to a it (particularly seen from  afar) with huge transparent fabric wall panels that welcome the natural summer ambience and provide natural light for the staging. In the unlikely event that you get bored during a performance, the garden views  visible from the auditorium offer a splendid alternative. The long interval gives you ample opportunity to picnic and explore the parkland setting with a rose arbour,  cricket pitch, lake, island pavilion and roaming deer.

Stressed fabric sails enhance the acoustic and the orchestra pit is placed in the  ha-ha which would go some way to explain the finely balanced sound.