Albert Herring is a comic chamber opera by Benjamin Britten. Written as a companion piece for his serious opera The Rape of Lucretia, the libretto, by Eric Crozier, is taken from Guy de Maupassant's story Le Rosier de Madame Husson. It was premiered on 20 June 1947 in Glyndebourne, conducted by the composer.
Albert Herring is in some ways reminiscent of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan and in some ways that of Richard Strauss. The text itself is genuinely funny, and there are a myriad of musical quotations within the score, as well as some complex forms within, despite the light subject matter. Like Peter Grimes and other works by Britten, this opera explores society's reaction to an odd individual, although, in this case at least, it is from a generally humorous and lighthearted perspective.
Setting Loxford, a small market-town in East Suffolk, England, in April and May of 1900
Act I Housekeeper Florence Pike is run ragged. Her mistress Lady Billows is organizing the annual May Day festival, and has gathered all the important people of the village to vet nominations for the coveted position of Queen of the May. But Florence has dug up dirt on every single girl nominated, proving that none is worthy to wear the May Queen's crown. There is, as it turns out, not one female virgin in all of Loxford. Lady Billows is depressed. Superintendent Budd suggests the solution may be to select, this year, a May King instead of a May Queen. He knows of a young man in town who is as certainly virginal as the girls are certainly not: Albert Herring.
At the grocer's, Albert is teased for his timidity by the easygoing Sid. Sid's girlfriend Nancy comes in to do some shopping, and the couple shares a tender moment while Albert eats his heart out. The lovers leave, and Albert has time to reflect on his miserable existence before the Festival Committee arrives with the news of his selection as May King. Mrs. Herring is thrilled; Albert is less so. Mother and son quarrel, to the mocking commentary of the village children.
Act II It is the day of the festival. Sid and Nancy are preparing the banquet tent, and they take the chance to slip a little rum into Albert's lemonade glass. Albert is tongue-tied at the feast in his honor, but drinks his lemonade greedily. Together with his crown of flowers, he is awarded twenty-five pounds in prize money.
That night Albert arrives home alone, quite drunk. In the street, Sid keeps a date with Nancy, and the two discuss their pity for Albert before going off together. This is finally the breaking point for Albert. He takes the prize money and heads out looking for trouble.
Act III The next morning Albert has not returned, and the village is in a panic. Superintendent Budd is leading a search, while the guilt-stricken Nancy tends to Mrs. Herring. A village boy shouts that a "Big White Something" has been found in a well, and the villagers file in to break the news en masse: Albert's crown of flowers has been discovered, badly smooshed. Clearly, he is dead. The village joins in a chorus of grief, which is interrupted by the return of Albert. He thanks the Festival Committee for providing him with the cash for his night out. The crowd disperses, and Albert invites the village kids into the shop to sample some complimentary fruit.