The US-staged premiere of Ethel Smyth’s 1906 opera The Wreckers at the Fisher Center as part of Bard Summerscape made a strong case that this work deserves to be in the standard repertory. The story comes across with visceral impact when given a staged production. Addressing critical moral issues, the music gives depth and urgency to the grim story: a community steeped in violence and depravity as a way of life, and the courage of the two people who stand up to it. Music Director Leon Botstein is nothing less than a visionary in bringing Smyth’s opera to light.
The staging essential as it makes the plot more credible than it appears on paper—the intertwined blood-lust and piety that supports the community’s beliefs and behaviors become visceral elements. From the vigorous first notes of the overture, we witness the act of wrecking as the villagers work over the crushed hull of a shipwreck, viciously slaughtering survivors and plundering their possessions. This staged overture encapsulates the villagers’ motivation, making what follows more believable.
And the chorus’s opening words explain the rationale behind the practice: the wreckers’ grisly murders become (instead of a crime) biblical sacrifices to a stern and demanding God. The goods they collect from the victims are God’s rewards to a people who do his will. Pascoe, the minister, leads his community in these beliefs and also demands stern propriety—he condemns drinking and working on the Sabbath.
But someone in the community is betraying them by lighting beacons on the cliff to warn ships away. Thus for many weeks there has been no wrecking, leading to hardship and hunger. Who is the betrayer? Thirza, Pascoe’s young wife, is disaffected from the community. She and Mark (a local fisherman) clearly share an attraction. But Avis, with whom Mark was involved with in the past, is determined to try and hold on to him. Also Pascoe has alienated Avis by some salacious groping and with insisting she give up her necklace for the good of the community. She determines to implicate him as the betrayer, both to punish him for his hypocrisy and to bring down Thirza, her rival for Mark’s attentions.
Act II reveals Mark gathering wood to burn as a beacon—he is the betrayer of the community’s values. Thirza joins him as an accomplice, but she warns him that the townspeople know about the beacon and are out to find who is setting it. In an impassioned and hopeful (if overlong) love duet, Mark and Thirza agree to run away together and escape the community. Just as they light the beacon and leave, Pascoe sees them and calls out Thirza’s name in shock. In the libretto, he collapses in distress, but in this staging, Avis clubs him so he falls by the beacon, and is lying there when the villagers arrive to catch him “red-handed.” Thus Avis is given real agency in this production.
In the final Act, Pascoe is tried by the villagers in a great cave. He refuses to answer their questions: “I am not one to whom his fellows give orders.” Avis insists he has acted under the influence of Thirza, and the people condemn him to death. At this point, Mark steps forward to interrupt the trial “Stay! I, Mark, am the betrayer! This man has done no wrong!” Pascoe is visibly shocked at this. At this point, Thirza also joins Mark in admitting guilt. Avis, in desperation, insists Mark did not light beacon, claiming he spent the entire night with her. The townspeople see through Avis’ lie, and her father orders her to leave.
The court is declared closed, and Mark and Thirza are left in the cave as the tide rises. Pascoe pleads for his wife to be spared, and even moves to drag her from the cave, but she insists on her desire to die with Mark. Solemnly, the villagers depart. Mark and Thirza conclude with a rapturous duet, as the great waves, the unsurmountable power of the sea, crash over them.
Botstein views this story as profoundly current and significant: “It is hard to imagine an opera whose argument is more pertinent to our times than Ethel Smyth’s ‘The Wreckers.’” Seeing the drama, with its powerful music, enacted on stage, clearly supports that view. The cost of unexamined tradition and inherited ritual is present in many aspects of today’s society — for instance, the narrowness of religious fanaticism (in a range of faiths) or the belief in American Exceptionalism that fosters brutal treatment of undocumented immigrants.
And the music itself is powerful and varied, revealing Smyth’s command of the orchestra’s full range of emotions and expressions. While occasionally there were passages that seemed overly long, or orchestrated rather heavily (for instance there seemed to be a lot of snare drum), Botstein kept a sense of momentum and drive, and the tempos were frequently energized with a remarkable fluidity (which the ensemble carried out with expert control). The singers were all impressive and poised. As the flirtatious/manipulative Avis, Sky Ingram was remarkable. Her lilting aria in Act I evoked something from Carmen, or perhaps Grieg’s “Anitra’s Dance.” Louis Otey was impressive as the pastor, Pascoe. While vocal fatigue weakened his high notes in Act I, by Act III he was recovered, and was compelling dramatically and musically. Katharine Goeldner (as Thirza) and Neal Cooper (as Mark) were strong, and demonstrated real chemistry towards each other. Goeldner might have employed more vocal nuance, however. The role of the chorus as the twisted community is crucial, so the success of Chorus Master James Bagwell should be noted (despite the limitations of the set).
The use of screens, projections, and evocative lighting were effective in transforming the scene –creating a wrecked ship, for instance, or townspeople climbing over the rugged cliffs. The set itself consists of assorted stacks of wooden crates that suggest (alternately) the rugged cliffs of the coast, or the workplace of the fishermen who fix their nets, clean their catch, or (as wreckers) kill and rob their victims. While striking, the set design was flawed, in that movement around the stage was always impeded and constrained. While the crates are often useful stage items, there is no open stage area; the singers cannot walk across the stage, but must always climb or clamber, taking care where to place their feet. When Mark sings “Thirza! Come to me!” and Thirza replies “Love, I come, my arms open wide,” they cannot rush into each other’s arms, but instead must carefully maneuver to each other. As an onlooker it made me nervous; the precipitous set seemed to make a fall imminent at any moment, even during the final curtain calls!
Smyth employs a range of stylistic approaches in conveying this powerful story through music. Mark’s moving song in the beginning of Act II employs a mournful and evocative folk-inspired melody that builds with an expanding orchestral palette of accompaniments. Some of choral writing, with its lush chordal motion, is distinctly English. While Smyth draws on different styles to illustrate and illuminate the range of moods and emotions, the many returning musical ideas serve to weld the work into an overarching and impelling whole. For instance, the evocative swirl of the ocean conveyed in the Prelude to Act II and recalled again at the conclusion as villagers note the rising tide. Or the “wreckers” motive itself – driving and invigorating as it opens the opera, but then recurring in different moods: playful and light to subdued and hushed. The variety of approaches reflect the range of emotions of the work, but thematic transformation and integration is used to underscore the characters’ emotional development, and to draw connections between events.
About the ending, I am inclined to ask, as Pascoe does, “You, Mark! But why?” When it looks as if the hypocritical Pascoe is to be executed, why does Mark step forward to accept the blame? While we might think that this is the chance for Mark and Thirza to escape and have the happiness they dreamed of at the end of Act II, Mark’s moral fiber will not let himself see Pascoe be the fall guy for Mark’s deeds. Mark and Thirza might have been able to escape from the oppressive village, but the town would have only continued in its hideous path of murder and thievery. With Pascoe reeling from his wife’s execution for the crime of counteracting the town’s immoral practices, we can imagine that Pascoe himself might have a watershed moment and turn to leading the villagers away from their traditional depraved practices. Thus the redemption experienced by Mark and Thirza, just may, in turn, through Pascoe, influence and reform the townspeople. Though the opera ends tragically, the possibility remains of eventual transformation and redemption by the townspeople themselves.
The Wreckers continues with performances July 26, 29, 31 and Aug. 2. For ticketing information click here.
A second performance of The Wreckers, on July 26th, left me even more strongly convinced of the importance of the work, both aesthetically and dramatically. And the music is distinctly memorable; I recall so much of it vividly, and have been humming it to myself (and others): the huge energy of the chorus at the end of the first act, the many solos and ensembles ranging from passionate to poignant, the somber unison chorus beginning Act III, and the inevitable, inexorable rising of the ocean waves at the conclusion.
I sat much closer on Sunday than I had before, and felt more of the impact of the costuming and the details of the stage action: the grimy villagers with their grey and blackened teeth, and greasy hair; the copious quantities of blood (both from the wrecking and from, well, I’m sure that wasn’t a real rat having its neck twisted – how often does the soprano get asked to do THAT?)
Louis Otey (Pascoe) was announced to be feeling unwell. That probably explains the problems he had with his high range on Friday. On Sunday he was vocally more restrained and worked around a few high notes, yet he was still compelling and engaging. And to mention a few more of the cast, Michael Mayes (Lawrence, the lighthouse keeper and father of Avis; he also leads the trial of Act III) was another charismatic performer, as was Dennis Petersen (Tallan), the innkeeper who gets the action going in Act I.
In the talk given before the Sunday performance, Leon Botstein discussed his passion for The Wreckers and countered some of the claims that are sometimes used to dismiss it. First is that it must have been neglected because there is something wrong with it. But many arbitrary factors contribute to a work’s achieving fame. And many works in the standard operatic repertoire are flawed: though they possess silly plots, lack of dramatic structure (etc.), these works are often considered sacrosanct.
Smyth’s musical language in The Wreckers is occasionally described as derivative. But all composers draw from the language of other composers: Wagner drew from Meyerbeer, Strauss drew from Wagner, etc. etc. There is nothing wrong that. That such arguments are still made to dismiss Smyth’s brilliant opera would seem to be (at least in part) a holdover from the incredibly condescending attitudes she faced in her lifetime, as the result of being a woman working in what was perceived as outside of her “appropriate sphere.”
And Botstein emphasized that this is an opera for our times because of the moral issues it addresses: the notion of a community that adheres to absolutist beliefs, that allows it to believe not only that those outside of the community are wrong, but that they have no worth and thus their murder/sacrifice is justified. That Thirza and Mark go against these values and work to prevent innocent strangers from being murdered, resonates with many social justice movements, including “Black Lives Matter.”
Already I’ve been asked if there is any chance “The Wreckers” might be done in Boston. Well, we can hope, and that it might reach other major centers as well!