Saturday, August 06, 2016


Two librettos between farcical comedy and dramatic tragedy


Just out of World War Two, let us sing the greatness of Great Britain and the still in existence Empire. The greatness and also the naïve innocence of the old Celtic traditions of the Maypole, May Day and of course May Queen. But today it is difficult to find a pure, innocent, virginal female teenager who could qualify for such a rite, such a choice, such a symbolic designation. So the poor villagers and their local noble lady are obliged to change their target and aim at a May King. And sure enough there is one who qualifies, though we do not know why that actually happened.

This Albert Herring, with no father any more and only a possessive control freak mother is the next greengrocer of the village when his mother decides to retire. More than a simpleton, since he knows how to count and he’d better do so since everyone is trying to cheat him out of what they owe him, he is nicely autistic more than anything else: he has difficulties establishing a relation with any third person apart from himself and his mother. He is shy they say. He is hard working and one-pointed but he does not have any vision of the future: He lacks ambition – maybe – they say. And he does not know at all what is beyond the narrow pale of his mother: he has never had any alcohol since his mother is a teetotaler. He has never gone out to a pub or anywhere else since he works for his mother from sunrise to beyond sunset. He has never approached or been approached by a girl or woman since he is the untouchable of his mother.

And the opera turns to his disadvantage and to our merry pleasure since he is a fool in the first act, a fair idiot in the second act and then he disappears to come back a transformed person who has discovered there are many other things in life beyond his mother and her narrow-minded vision of her living death and her cane if not cudgel imposed authority. Good riddance and welcome home, finally home, your home, the way you make it and not the way your widowed mother wants to impose it.

The text is light and light-hearted, and yet it makes fun of British fundamentalism based on “no alcohol, we are teetotalers” and “no **fleshy contact**, we are British” and “no free thinking or atheistic illusions, we are Anglicans.” How could that fundamentalism survive in Great Britain so long with pub opening hours reduced to nearly nothing up to the 1980s when they were finally slightly extended and liberalized though they will be really free only in the 21sy century.

What is amazing is that two of the basic themes of Benjamin Britten’s operas are already all contained in this early one. Albert Herring is a stranger in his own village, kept apart, on the side and the target of jokes, tricks, and other pranks, like making him drink rum laced in his lemonade, or stealing his apples, or getting herbs for free by just forgetting to pay before leaving. He is also a stranger to his mother because she does not know he is a man and she treats him as if he were a pet, a working pet mind you, hence a domestic animal like an ox, and he is as strong as one if not two.

The second theme is of course the denunciation of ethical, religious, moral fundamentalism and particularly the way some women who think they are the mothers of society like Lady Billows, not one billow but several large undulating mass of something, typically cloud, smoke, or steam, or maybe a vast inflated balloon billowing in the hot air of her moralistic discourse, fanned like a moralistic fire by the local Mayor, the local Vicar and the local Superintendent, or is it only a simple Constable? Three men aided by a fourth female character, the local teacher, Miss Wordsworth who is worth what words are worth, not much indeed since they only exist in dictionaries. And of course a real mother, the possessive control freak that she is, is seen as stifling, choking and smothering her own son into asocial suffocation with only one intention: to make him a money-earner for the family, that is to say for herself.

These two themes are extremely present in many operas with one absent here: the killing or abducting father figure, the third side of the trinity Benjamin Britten used so much all the time along with pentacles and pentads like the five selectors of the new May King: Lady Billows, Mr. Gedge the Vicar, Superintendent Budd, Mr. Upfold the Mayor and Miss Wordsworth the Head Teacher, clearly opposed to the three people around Albert, Sid, Nancy and Mrs. Herring, and the three kids from the village, Emmie, Cis and Harry. And if you add Florence Pike, the Housekeeper of the Lady, you reach thirteen fateful blind deaf and not dumb at all, meaning mute, though quite dumb meaning besotted characters. And their names are just a bunch of funny puns.


This is a war story that defies and defiles love. We must keep in mind we are just after the Second World War, just out of it, and the steady reference to Jesus Christ, to the Cross, to his death to save us makes the story of Lucretia a real annunciation that man’s curse cannot be redeemed. Jesus is compensation and not possible change. It is salvation that has to be brought back over and over again since man will always commit sins, a redemption that can only come after the crime. This somber Christian parabolic lesson is present from beginning to end and animates the whole tale.

The story is a simple as simple can be. Two generals, Junius and Collatinus, and one Prince, Tarquinius, are at war against the Greeks somewhere and they boast, some evening in camp when drinking and waiting for a battle to come some day, about women and how the wives of many generals were found unfaithful when checked upon, except Lucretia, Collatinus’ wife. According to Tarquinius women are the only end in life for him and for both Junius and Tarquinius all women are by nature unchaste. Tarquinius though boasts he can prove Lucretia is chaste and Junius dares him on that objective, both meaning Lucretia will be taken, for Junius because that’s the nature of all women and for Tarquinius because he is a hypocrite when asserting Lucretia is chaste: his objective is to take her. Sure enough Tarquinius takes a horse, gallops to Rome, visits late at night Lucretia’s home and spends the night there. During the night he takes Lucretia and rides her just the same utilitarian           n way as a horse, and then he goes back to his horse and gallops back to camp before daybreak. Strangely enough Junius tells Collatinus he has to check upon Lucretia because he had heard a horse galloping away on the previous night and galloping back in very early in the morning. When Collatinus arrives at Lucretia’s home, it is too late and Lucretia kills herself in front of her husband out of shame.

But the libretto’s author and Benjamin Britten turn this simple and sad story into a remarkably meaningful tale about man and his fate, consequently about woman and her fate.

First the story is built on two groups of people. On one hand three men, two generals and one prince. Note the three men are connected by their military service. On the other hand three women, Lucretia, her nurse Bianca and her maid Lucia. Note the three women are connected to light and purity by their names. Lucia is a name derived from “lux” meaning light. Bianca is a name derived from “bianco” meaning white, and Lucretia often associated to the Latin word “lucrum” meaning profit is parallel to Lucia and hence the old Celtic god of light, Lugh, Lug or Lu’ch seems more pregnant to qualify the lady. Note though this very same Celtic root, which is also an Indo-European root, the same as in the Latin word “lux” is also behind Lucifer. Lucretia thus and her two servants create an environment of light that is also ambiguous in some ways with connection to “lucrum” (profit), to “Lucifer” (the light-resplendent side of Satan), and also to lust and an old Germanic root meaning desire. In this triad of women we have some ambiguous meaning that makes them in a way the victims of a curse: the curse of being light as well as desire, purity as well as profit.

On the other hand the triad of men are just military people by profession or by birth and their superiority as men is their absolute dimension as individuals who just take what they can take for the sole reason they can take it, and that applies to women for two of them, though the third one remains silent on the subject more than non-committed: he is married, his wife is faithful and he is faithful to his wife.

These two triads are opposed in directions, one looking to the other, one penetrating the other and the other receiving the first one. That is the famous star of David and thus a Jewish symbol that was anachronistic in Lucretia’s time in ancient Rome, but is pregnant in modern times in 1946.


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