OWhen composer and writer Ethel Smyth died aged 86 in May 1944, the Daily Telegraph called her “one of the most gifted women of all time”. The Sunday Times obituary was more explicit in its ambivalence: “Whatever the final verdict on her music, she herself was magnificent.
There’s no ultimate verdict in music, thankfully – just ever-changing fads. And, after decades out in the cold, Smyth is having a good year: Glyndebourne opened its summer season with The Wreckers and the Proms featuring several of his works, including the seductive Double Concerto for Violin and Horn. Nonetheless, the hard work of small businesses and individuals remains crucial to the Smyth legacy. Ever thoughtful, festival Grimeborn – rooted in hipster mecca Dalston – first staged its comic opera The Boatswain’s Mate in 2018 and revived it as part of this year’s offering.
Realized by Cecilia Stinton, the production apparently shifts the action to 1950s Margate – though I would have struggled to place it so specifically in time or space solely from (“vintage”) costumes and a minimalist decor (wooden terrace, a clothesline, a few old tables and stools). I also didn’t understand why the excellent piano trio performing a bold, stripped-back reduction of Smyth’s score wore woolen caps.
Still, there was plenty of atmosphere, relying above all on the consummate acting of Beca Davies as Mary Ann (who turned this terrace into a beach with her reader-persecuted-by-bored-boyfriend routine during opening) and Josephine Godardin the warm and delightfully sassy role of Mrs. Waters, the no-frills publican pursued by John Upperton’s budding heroic suitor, Harry Benn. Robert WinsladeAndersonThe performance of the idiot policeman called in for a fake murder committed by Mrs. W (in response to a fake burglary staged by Benn) stood out among the male leads.
Better diction and more careful balancing in the tiny space of the Arcola would have helped Smyth’s remarkably witty libretto carry further. But his musical jokes – from a parody of the iconic overture to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to a takeoff of Verdi’s Falstaff and an overworked pseudo-Rachmaninoff passage as Mrs W embraces his inner romanticism – have remained spot on.