Prom 13: The Wreckers

Smyth

The Wreckers – Cornish drama in three acts to a libretto by Henry Brewster [additional orchestrations by Tom Poster; sung in French with English surtitles by Melly Still]

Thirza – Karis Tucker
Pasko – Philip Horst
Laurent – James Rutherford
Marc – Rodrigo Porras Garulo
Avis – Lauren Fagan
Harvey – Donovan Singletary
Tallan – Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Jaquet – Marta Fontanals-Simmons

Glyndebourne Festival Opera
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Robin Ticciat


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 24 July, 2022
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Blown in like a storm petrel from deepest, darkest Sussex, Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers (or should that be Les Naufrageurs, given the decision to sing it in French?) returned to the Proms in its fullest form since Odaline de la Martinez conducted it at the Proms just shy of 28 years ago (31 July 1994).  

Not quite the rarity you might suppose (it was premièred in Leipzig and had at least two outings in London, the first conducted by Bruno Walter, no less, the second by Thomas Beecham), The Wreckers has had something of a chequered history, with perhaps its composer its worst enemy (stealing the parts and score after the Leipzig first performance because she was so unhappy with the cuts, so the rest of the run had to be cancelled).  Glyndebourne has gone back to original sources and fashioned a new edition, restoring the original French of Henry Brewster’s libretto and rescoring the portions that had been cut (Tom Poster – I presume the pianist – acting as Smyth’s belated amanuensis), so Melly Still’s 2022 production and this subsequent Proms performance was as close to a world premiere of Smyth’s original version as we’re ever likely to get.

Shore-set operas are not new – and Smyth’s magnum opus (1902-4) comes almost perfectly midway between Bizet’s exotic Les Pêcheurs de perles (1863) and Britten’s Peter Grimes (1944-5), with some similarities to both.  The denouement seems to transplant Verdi’s 1871 Egyptian tragedy northwest (with a shift of a few thousand years to boot): a veritable Aida-by-the-sea, on the rugged Cornish coast, ostensibly in the late 18th century.

One oddity is the French libretto.  The puritan fervour of the villagers seems unlikely in this romance language, and they do seem a fickle bunch, rather too gullible to believe their pastor, who has encouraged them to be wreckers in luring ships onto the rocks by dowsing the lighthouse beacon and then pillaging the cargo, and then suddenly to condemn him for being the traitor that has lit a separate beacon on the beach to ward off passing ships.   He remains silent, perhaps to save his young wife, Thirza (but why?  She makes it abundantly clear she dislikes him), so the scene is set for the best act, the third – a trial seen in a subterranean cave, where things really do come to a head.

From a comparison to the Conifer recording of the 1994 Proms performance (I was there!), it seems the bulk of the cut music is from the second and particularly third acts.  Now with this restoration the most convincing act is the final one, it’s where the focus of the chorus is at its best as it grows from unease and bewilderment to shifting condemnation.  There’s a great confrontation between Thirza and young rival for Marc’s love, Avis, where Smyth pulls out the most lyrical tune to swathe the cut and thrust of their accusations.  Until then, Marc’s Act I opener aside (which forms the softer second subject of the overture), most of the singing is more lushly accompanied recitative than anything like an aria.  The drama ratchets up in this final act, with the encroaching tide and sequence of revelations that – ultimately – condemn Marc and Thirza to a watery end.

From the overture’s initial rising, rousing theme to the pairs of tutti chords that end the drama, Robin Ticciati conducts Smyth’s music for all it is worth.  The Proms’ concert performance, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra paid dividends as the orchestra is one of Smyth’s heroes in this score.  The Overture and the atmospheric interlude preceding Act II, On the Cliffs of Cornwall – occasional visitors to this stage and series – are honourable seascape compatriots to Bax’s Tintagel and Britten’s Four Sea Interludes, and respond to being allowed out of an opera pit.  The storm motif enshrined in the rising opening returns again and again, often also as a musical embodiment of the villagers’ emotional torment, and there is much to persuade the ear in Smyth’s orchestrations (and Poster’s too: I could not tell a difference).

Ticciati also had the benefit of a strong cast, and if the ladies took top honours – particularly Lauren Fagan’s Avis and Karis Tucker’s Thirza (both Proms debuts) – that’s more to do with Smyth’s writing for the characters.  James Rutherford’s bluff lighthouse keeper Laurent, Philip Horst’s pastor Pasko and Rodrigo Porras Garulo’s Marc would have benefited with Smyth fleshing out their characters more and giving them much more lyrical lines.  

 With the orchestra pushed back up the risers, the action was played out on the forestage, and there was a powerful physical effect of a professional chorus singing straight out at the prommers.  Dressed in Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s postpunk shabby costumes – brandishing weapons and donning homemade masks when in wrecking mode – there was a fussiness that slightly marred comprehension, but at least we were saved the wafting four ‘dancers’ of the Glyndebourne production itself, which I had found an irritant.  The modern setting – for me – didn’t help the plot.  I suspect that if someone has the nerve to set it in historical times and also offer the complete version in a revised English translation, Smyth will be best served.  

Hopefully it won’t take another 28 years to grace another British stage or concert platform.  Given the relative dearth of British operas at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries, The Wreckers is an achievement to be celebrated – congratulations to Ticciati and Glyndebourne for paying its dues.

Ticciati continues his advocacy in Berlin on 25 September, when he conducts it with his Deutsches Symphonie Orchester forces, with largely the same cast.

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