JLost on the high seas of misogyny, capsized by an overload of anecdotes about her character and habits, Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) remained enthusiastic (that’s her kind of word) about the professional frustrations she faced. Before the new and rare staging of his opera by Glyndebourne The Wreckers (1906), a flurry of articles celebrated his eccentricities. More importantly, they drew attention to her pioneering efforts as a composer, moving for a time to the center of European musical life. If you don’t know his story, including the toothbrush part, it’s worth watching.
Smyth’s timing was unlucky. His opera in three acts is said to prefigure that of Britten Pierre Grimes (1945), on the scant evidence that both have a coastal setting and a choral community presence. Britten’s work, so triumphant from the start, has in fact wiped the slate clean of British opera; Smyth’s work had barely established itself and was now overtaken by that of a young newcomer. The Wreckers had initial interest after its 1906 premiere in Germany, but fell out of view, not helped by Smyth’s tendency to antagonize those around him.
Glyndebourne has invested boldly, with 10 performances, not yet sold out, and a well-executed production. All praise to their bravery. The work deserves its revival, whatever its shortcomings, which could be summarized as long and noisy. There is more to this. Melly Still’s staging, conducted by Robin Ticciati with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the pit, recreates the original French libretto by Henry Brewster. It also reinstates half an hour of clippings (thanks to the extensive work of Glyndebourne Librarian Martyn Bennett and his team).
History is a tangled moral thicket. Impoverished Cornish villagers lure ships onto the rocks by turning off warning beacons, killing and looting as they go. Through the stern voice of their leader and pastor, Pasko (Philip Horst), God stirs them. Unfortunately, Pasko’s young wife, Thurza (Karis Tucker), is in love with handsome Marc (Rodrigo Porras Garulo). They are discovered, fanning both the flames of an illicit lighthouse and their incendiary passion, and sentenced to death. The tide is rising. Their fate is sealed, like a wet version of the lovers in the vault at the end of Verdi Aida.
Smyth’s music is accessible, melodious, varied, much of it in a mood of prolonged urgency that becomes tiring. A soup of styles, from Wagner and Bizet to Gounod and Richard Strauss, it twirls and sways from one idiom to another. It is only in the prelude of the second act, sensual and delicate, that one perceives a hint of individual voice. The heartbreaking refrains are perfectly sung and played, but the main characters are poorly defined. If only we care more, despite the best efforts of everyone involved in the performance, about the drama that unfolds.
Designed by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita (with lighting by Malcolm Rippeth), Still’s staging relies heavily on dry ice, a simple moving staircase and platform, and modern generic clothing. The dark world of shipwreckers is a black abstract space with a seascape (video by Akhila Krishnan). The cast tackles Smyth’s vocal writing admirably, with fiery Porras Garulo in the high-placed role of Marc. The young villager Avis, rejected in her love for Marc, is well taken by Lauren Faganfearless and thrillingly precise in this trying game. Horstas Pasko added far beyond the music, especially at the end, in his agony unable to turn away from his adulterous wife in her lover’s arms: the most moving part of the drama.
Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Marta Fontanals-Simmons, Donovan Singletary and, notably, James Rutherford added to an engaged cast. The LPO played with expertise and confidence, as if it were familiar ground, not substantial and demanding novelty. A neighbor in the audience, pursuing college studies on Smyth, had traveled from North Carolina to see him. She was delighted. It was the same for the public; the production delivers a powerful blow at the end. A semi-stage performance will be at the Proms Sunday July 24.
Soviet-born American pianist Kirill Gerstein, a musician who does nothing halfway, has had busy weeks giving concerts for the benefit of Ukraine – he was one of the first musicians to condemn the war – in Berlin and Vienna, where he also replaced the indisposed Daniel Barenboim. Nonetheless, he was in top form for his recital at Queen Elizabeth Hall on Wednesday. After Stravinsky and Schubert, he devotes the second half to Liszt. As if preparing for the perils to come, Gerstein first explored the inner meditations of the God’s Blessing in Solitude.
He then went straight on with the rumbling bass notes that herald the mighty Sonata in B minor. Four movements united in one, it requires the firmest direction of the pianist to guide the listener through its chromatic storms and its serene and vertiginous transformations. Otherwise it’s boring. Clara Schumann, when she first saw the manuscript – dedicated to her husband, Robert Schumann – feared it was “just pure racketeering”. She needed Gerstein. Without playthings, clairvoyant, virtuoso, he showed us why it is a masterpiece. What a dazzling player.
Star ratings (out of five)
The Wreckers ★★★★
Kirill Gerstein ★★★★★