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The Wreckers in French?


Is it really better than the English version seen in Smyth’s lifetime?

Act I chorus (Richard Hubert Smith photo)

Upon hearing that Glyndebourne would stage Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers, I instantly resolved to attend. This memorable and compelling work is certainly too seldom performed and I jumped at the chance (I had previously seen the first U.S. staged version at the Bard Summer Festival in 2015; it streams in its glorious entirety HERE (my BMint review HERE).

The Wreckers tells a grim story of pillaging and murder ― in God’s name ― off the rugged Cornwall coast. A community of “Land pirates” survives by luring ships to run aground by extinguishing the beacon that should warn sailors of the danger. Then the ships are plundered, and the survivors murdered. However, the community is being betrayed by someone who is lighting beacons: no ships have run aground for weeks, exacerbating the town’s dire poverty. (A plot summary can be found in the above-mentioned BMint review, or on Wikipedia HERE. The characters’ names are in slightly different but recognizable in the French version).

With the impoverished and grimy fishing village and the residents’ core belief that God allows them to murder in order to survive, we might call the opera Verismo. The vivid music and the intensity of the characters’ passions supports such a label.

Billing it as the first performance of the original French version, Glyndebourne offers a striking take on Smyth’s opera. But is this version one that Smyth would have preferred? Smyth and her librettist Henry B. Brewster, were both cosmopolitan, transnational figures: the British Smyth with her years of music training in Germany, Brewster raised in Paris by American parents but living most of his life in Florence. After creating the work in French with the hopes of winning a performance in Paris, Monte Carlo, or at Covent Garden (where French opera was then dominant), Smyth eventually used her contacts in Leipzig to obtain the premiere there, and so a German libretto was created for that event (1906). An English performance took place in 1909, but Brewster had passed away the previous year and was not involved in the creation of the English libretto.

In light of the English version’s having an actual performance history, it might be argued that it is the version that best represents the composer’s intent. Could the French version be seen as a draft that might have undergone tightening and revision had it gone through the rehearsal and performance process? The Glyndebourne program book reports on more than 20 minutes’ worth of music in the French version not found elsewhere, and some of that needed to be orchestrated. Certainly the awkwardness of much the language of the English version is a problem ― on Oct. 28, 2022, Houston Grand Opera will stage an English-language version with the libretto recast by acclaimed author and translator Amanda Holden.

All the important music is there but some portions of the French version do seem to weigh down the drama. Pasko’s rumination at the end of Act II spins out the end of the Act anticlimactically ― rather than ending with the energy of Marc and Thurza’s duet fusing their resolve, both to light the beacon that will save innocent lives, AND to run away together. As Pasko, Philip Horst was compelling, although losing some vocal presence in the lower range. Pasko’s soliloquy reveals his feelings of guilt in his marriage to Thurza (since it is based on his lust and unreciprocated by his young bride). Realizing it is she who has lit the beacon, he collapses in a bewildered stupor, and then is found by Laurent who then can only assume it is Pasko who lit the nearby beacon.

Karis Tucker, as Thurza, is a searing presence and vocal powerhouse, and the dramatic crux of the opera. Marc (tenor Rodrigo Porras Garulo) did not rise to her standard, with some pitch uncertainty leaving his duets with Tucker on shaky footing. Avis, the jealous gadfly (soprano Lauren Fagan), brought drive and sparkle to her manipulative flirtations. The chorus plays a central role as the villagers, steeped in a tribal, mob mentality. The frenzied finale of Act I ― with the crowd of villagers worked into a wild dance ― conveys a huge energy and dynamism (“The storm is coming ― Start the dance!”). The bleak and evocative set is vague on specific timeframe (with Avis’s miniskirt and the abandoned shopping cart in the harbor wreckage indicators of the late 1960s), and the staging is rich in visual layers.  The ocean’s ever-present force pounds the projected screens with waves leaving us immersed in its relentless power. The four women clad in black served as silent onlookers, like a Greek chorus or Norse Norns, their dance and motion emphasizing the emotional tone, but sometimes they were but also participants serving as a moral compass, as when they bring Marc firewood for the beacon. The orchestra (led by Robin Ticciati) was always crisp and brilliant throughout the demanding and unfamiliar score.

Curtain call with images of Henry B. Brewster and Ethel Smyth

Are Thurza and Marc are drawn together because of their shared moral vision within a community blinded by its commitment to its age-old rituals of depravity? Following that view, their physical attraction to each other is just part of the dramatic inevitability ― their love for humanity fuses with their own passion for each other as one motivation. Tucker conveys Thurza’s magnetism as the product of her integrity and belief in her convictions, and in contrast to Avis’s shallow selfishness.

The chorus that begins Act III is one of the music highlights, with the jagged unison melody restless and craggy, as the villagers assemble in a cave for the trial of Pasko. Also Laurent (vividly sung by James Rutherford) emerges as a leader for the community, as he directs the trial against Pasco. Extended in this version is Laurent’s reaction to Avis’ ruse (claiming that she spent the previous night with Marc in an attempt to prevent him from taking the blame for lighting the beacon). Since everyone sees that Avis is making a desperate lie, it seems a distraction to have extended paternal outrage here.

I hope a copy of the French libretto will be available soon ― the English one is available HERE. Both versions call for study and consideration — and further performances and interpretations by other ensembles. The availability of the Glyndebourne version on the company’s streaming platform from August 2022 means wider audiences will be able to experience this sweeping and monumental production. Smyth and Brewster’s creation deserve this acclaim and recognition, and audiences need the profound meaning of its story.

Directed by Melly Still, Robin Ticciati conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Chorus Director Aidan Oliver.

NB: The performance of The Wreckers is the first work composed by a woman composer in Glyndebourne’s 88-year history.  Their awareness of the under-representation of female composers in classical music led Glyndebourne to launch Balancing the Score.  As a result, newly composed fanfares from four women were performed on the grounds as part of the festivities before the opera on opening night.  

A trailer for the opera is HERE

The performances run through June 24th. Tickets HERE


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Hooray for Ethel, breaking another glass ceiling. I was delighted to see that Glynebourne Opera was going to stage this incredible opera. How great that you were able to go! The production at Bard College in 2015 was terrific and unforgettable: the set was amazing and brilliant, despite its difficulty for the singers to navigate. This music is grand, befitting the timely plot concerning mob rule and the religious justification for it. It needs to be heard, to be in the canon of operas done regularly by the big companies. I would love to see this production. Thank you, Liane, for letting us know that it will be available virtually.

    Comment by Amelia LeClair — May 28, 2022 at 4:46 am

  2. How wonderful to read a review by someone who knows Smyth’s music and has seen the only other fully-staged production of The Wreckers. While I appreciate Glyndebourne’s dedication to the original libretto and score, I agree with Curtis that Dame Ethel would probably have preferred that this production in her home country be offered in English. After all, she made herself a composer primarily in order to bring glory to a country that had produced no great composers since Handel and Purcell. Beyond the conjecture about the language sung, it is to the company’s great credit that this work was offered and presented at such a high artistic level.

    (Disclosure: I serve on the Board of Directors of Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy)

    Comment by Robyn Bramhall — June 8, 2022 at 1:59 pm

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