First, a confession. I have real problems with Albert Herring, Britten's only full-length comic opera. Of course, the score is full of musical craftsmanship on the highest level, and of course, Eric Crozier's libretto is a wonderfully skilful piece of work, stuffed with literary allusions and sly humour: it artfully transposes the original Guy de Maupassant short story from Normandy to a fictitious Suffolk village in the early 1900s. And yet . . .
Albert Herring was the second of Britten's chamber operas. It was composed for Glyndebourne in 1947, following in the wake of The Rape of Lucretia, which was performed the previous year. But, as Michael Kennedy's fascinating essay in the booklet for the new Chandos recording suggests, Herring's thematic links are with Peter Grimes (1945) rather than Lucretia. It is, Kennedy suggests, the satyr play to Grimes, dealing with some of the same issues as that great tragedy from a more light-hearted viewpoint. The inward-looking Suffolk community that dominates the earlier work is at the centre of Herring, too - still riven with hypocrisy and intolerance, though focused less murderously than before.
Certainly there are elements in other Britten operas that are hard to swallow - the overblown text of Lucretia, the Elizabethan pastiche of Gloriana, the rustics' knockabout in A Midsummer Night's Dream - but they are always redeemed by other features. In Herring it is the whole confection that makes it the epitome of parochial English opera: limited in its horizons, narrow in its emotional range. Where Grimes universalises its personal drama, Herring confines it, with its Aldeburgh in-jokes (characters' names drawn from the community in which Britten lived, for instance), its musical parodies and pastiches and, above all, its fastidious refusal to get to grips with the question of Albert's sexual repression, which should be the emotional core of the drama.
Had I played the Naxos release first - a reissue of the 1997 recording that originally appeared on the now defunct Collins Classics label - I would probably have had all my prejudices about Herring confirmed. There is something self-satisfied about that performance under Steuart Bedford; it is almost a caricature of the piece's shortcomings. But, although any Britten opera at budget price is worth investigating, it is the Chandos recording that gives the work more dramatic strength and psychological depth, makes it seem more palatable.
That is thanks partly to Richard Hickox's sturdily immediate conducting and partly to the cast, who treat the characters like real people rather than cardboard cut-outs. There is nothing fey or Peter Pears-ish about James Gilchrist's forcefully sung Albert, no over-the-top histrionics in Susan Bullock's Lady Billows, and no coquettish whimsy in Pamela Helen Stephen's Nancy. The supporting line-up is equally first-rate. I'm still not totally convinced, but I'm far more willing to give the piece the benefit of the doubt than ever before.