Revue The Wreckers at Glyndebourne – a rare revival for Ethel Smyth’s impassioned opera

An image of Ethel Smyth’s life remains etched in memory. A committed suffragette, she was incarcerated in Holloway Prison in 1912 for throwing a brick through a politician’s window and was said to have been shamelessly found there, leading a chorus of fellow inmates in her ‘Women’s March’ through the window of the cell with a toothbrush.

Fiery, unstoppable, Smyth rose to prominence as a composer in defiance of the attitudes of her time. She was the first woman to have an opera performed at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House (it would be more than 100 years before the next one) and Glyndebourne is riding the crest of a wave of new interest in her music as she opens her 2022 season. .with a rare production of his opera The Wreckers.

Despite all its weaknesses (and there are many), the opera deserves to be seen at least once. Smyth’s music goes with hammer and pliers and the cast of Glyndebourne does it the honor of not selling it short, each singer passionately engaged, the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Robin Ticciati never faltering through three acts of swinging energy and volume.

For the record, Glyndebourne has also prepared a new edition of the score, which reinstates 20-30 minutes of music (Smyth had strong opinions about who played with his scores). Whether that’s for the best is a moot point, but at least we hear everything there is to hear.

The story takes us to Cornwall and a community that lives off the plunder of ships pulled over the rocks. There is the basis for a strong lyrical plot here, looking at the isolation of outsiders and an inflamed populace seeking scapegoats, though this is hardly known from the libretto. The motivation of the characters is confused and we never get the clear moral message that we expect. Pierre Grimes it is not, despite all the similarities.

The Wreckers had its premiere in 1906 and Smyth’s music twirls like a magpie among the styles of the time. Bizet and Wagner are preferred, along with echoes of Debussy and Richard Strauss, though the single-minded force with which they are forged into one is definitely that of Smyth.

Everyone has a lot of big stuff to sing about. Rodrigo Porras Garulo is impressive as a romantic tenor hero and is backed by strong vocals, but not much stage presence, from mezzo Karis Tucker. Lauren Fagen rises as vengeful love rival and Philip Horst explodes in prodigious fashion as a pastor. The text, sung in the original French, is intelligible only intermittently. Melly Still’s updated production emphasizes a dark atmosphere and doesn’t need an irritating quartet of floaty dancers.

After a restless lack of focus in the first half, Smyth musters all mightily for the final act. As the populace, portrayed by Glyndebourne’s excellent chorus, turn to their chosen victims, the sheer dramatic force is something to behold. Think about this: there is no English opera written before or after The Wreckers which can match Smyth’s sincere, unapologetic and boundless passion.

★★★★☆

Hera Hyesang Park as Susanna in “The Marriage of Figaro” © Bill Cooper

The other opera which opens the season is that of Mozart The Marriage of Figaro. The temperature is lower here in Michael Grandage’s 2012 production, the one with beautiful Moorish motifs warmed by a bright Spanish sun. Unfortunately, the flower power-era setting with its hippie hairstyles and flared pants is overplayed and the comedy, complete with gendered supertitles, gets too broad.

The best reason to catch this revival comes with some of the vocals, notably the pristine, diamond-cut soprano of Susanna from Hera Hyesang Park. Brandon Cedel and Germán Olvera feature lyrical vocals like Figaro and the Count, the latter more elegantly focused. Amanda Woodbury sings with a generous voice, but less than an ideal classical cut like the Countess, and Emily Pogorelc is the bright-voiced Cherubino. LPO boss Giancarlo Andretta opts for fast speeds and clean styling. Everything seemed tame, however, compared to the dramatic frontal assault of the previous night.

★★★☆☆

‘Les Wreckers’ on June 24, ‘Figaro’ on July 16, glyndebourne.com

About Madeline J. Carter

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