Bard SummerScape made musical history by presenting the first full staging of British composer Ethel Smyth’s opera The Wreckers. Born in 1858 and dying in 1944, Smyth was celebrated in her day (John Singer Sargent painted her portrait in 1901) not only for her compositions, but for being an openly bisexual member of the suffrage movement. After breaking the window of a politician opposed to giving women the vote, she spent two months in prison. She was fiercely independent and headstrong – at 71 she fell in love with Virginia Woolf, who found her somewhat overbearing. Her long life bridged the music and lives of Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, R. Strauss, Berg and Schoenberg, and she met Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Clara Schumann and Brahms when she was studying, against her Major-General father’s wishes, in Leipzig, to which she travelled alone when she was only 19 years old – unheard of at the time.
Her music sounds like Tchaikovsky with hints of a conservative Richard Strauss, but her greatest musical influence seems to have been Wagner, if not in his complex harmonies or long-windedness (The Wreckers comes in at just over two hours), then for her dense, brassy, rich orchestration and use of repeating motifs, not as sophisticated as Wagner's, but much in the vein of his Leitmotifs. Her use of the chorus is masterly in the English tradition, and the overall effect of the work is, simply, lush late Romanticism. With its attempted evocations of the sea and portrayal of narrow-minded villagers, it presages Britten’s Peter Grimes, first performed the year after Smyth’s death, but it is nowhere near as great a work. The Wreckers’ first performance was in German, in Leipzig, and was a success; weirdly, the headstrong Smyth, disapproving of the cuts the conductor had made in the opera, snuck into the opera house and stole the score, so there was only that single performance. Don’t mess with Ethel! In 1903, her one act opera, Der Wald (The Forest), received a single performance at the Met, and she remains the only woman to have had an opera produced there.
The plot, with a stilted and somewhat antiquated libretto by her friend and on-and-off lover, Henry Brewster, is cruel and fascinating: Pascoe, a fanatical preacher in a coastal Cornish village, has the villagers keep the coastline in darkness to lure ships onto the rocks, where they murder the crews and steal supplies. Pascoe’s much younger wife, Thirza, has a lover named Mark; the latter had previously been romantically involved with Avis, the daughter of the lighthouse keeper. Mark and Thirza, horrified by the town’s murderous practice, light fires as beacons to save the ships and are almost caught by Pascoe, who (in the libretto’s instructions) faints before he can identify the pair. The jealous Avis (who, at Strassberger’s direction, hits Pascoe with a two-by-four, knocking him out – an unnecessary alteration, really) tries to trick the people by claiming it is Pascoe who has been setting the warning fires, but Mark confesses and he and Thirza are condemned to die in a cave that becomes submerged at high tide. Yes, it’s all a bit squeaky, but the theme of religious fanaticism and ask-no-questions followers couldn’t be fresher, could it? Not to mention secret love affairs and revenge. There’s more than a bit of bombast, but it is an interesting period piece.
We’ll not hear a finer performance of this work again soon. Major kudos go to Leon Botstein, who has championed the work for years and leads the American Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (under the masterful James Bagwell) in a performance that thrills. Despite the awkwardness of the English-language text (there are surtitles in English as well), there is drama aplenty and the work proves absolutely stageworthy. The brass rings out with abandon, and in the more tender moments – the lovely prelude to the second act, for instance – the interplay between winds and strings is lovely.
I cannot foresee The Wreckers becoming a repertoire staple, nor is it a masterpiece. But Botstein et al proved it creditable and more. The ovations were long and hearty.
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