Is it really better than the English version seen during Smyth’s lifetime?
On learning that Glyndebourne would direct Ethel Smyth The Wreckers, I immediately resolved to attend. This memorable and compelling work is certainly too rarely performed and I jumped at the chance (I had already seen the first American stage version at the Bard Summer Festival in 2015; it is streamed in its glorious entirety HERE (my BMint review HERE).
The Wreckers tells a dark tale of pillage and murder ― in the name of God ― off the rugged Cornish coast. A community of “land pirates” survives by luring ships to run aground by turning off the beacon that was meant to warn sailors of danger. Then the ships are plundered and the survivors murdered. However, the community is betrayed by someone who lights beacons: no ship has run aground for weeks, which aggravates the extreme poverty of the city. (A plot summary can be found in the BMint review, or on Wikipedia HERE. The names of the characters are slightly different but recognizable in the French version).
With the impoverished, grimy fishing village and the residents’ core belief that God allows them to kill to survive, we could call the opera Verism. The lively music and the intensity of the characters’ passions support such a label.
Presented as the first performance of the original French version, Glyndebourne offers a gripping interpretation of Smyth’s opera. But is this version the one Smyth would have preferred? Smyth and her librettist Henry B. Brewster were both cosmopolitan and transnational figures: the British Smyth with her musical training years in Germany, Brewster raised in Paris by American parents but living most of her life in Florence. After premiering the work in French in hopes of winning a performance in Paris, Monte Carlo or Covent Garden (where French opera was then dominant), Smyth eventually used his contacts in Leipzig to secure the premiere there, and therefore a German libretto. was created for this event (1906). An English performance took place in 1909, but Brewster had died the previous year and had not been involved in the creation of the English libretto.
In light of the fact that the English version has a real performance history, one could argue that it is the version that best represents the composers’ intent. Could the French version be considered a draft that could have been tightened up and revised had it gone through the process of rehearsal and performance? Glyndebourne’s program book reports over 20 minutes of music in the French version not found elsewhere, and some of this had to be orchestrated. Admittedly, the clunkyness of much of the English version’s language is a problem – on October 28, 2022, the 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 seem to add drama. Pasko’s rumination at the end of Act II turns the end of the act anticlimactic – rather than ending with the energy of the duo of Marc and Thurza merging their resolve, both to light the beacon who will save innocent lives AND get away together. As Pasko, Philip Horst was convincing, 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 not reciprocated by his young bride). Realizing that she was the one who lit the beacon, he collapses in a puzzled stupor, then is found by Laurent who can only assume that it was Pasko who lit the nearby beacon.
Karis Tucker, as Thurza, is a searing presence and vocal power, and the dramatic crux of the opera. Marc (tenor Rodrigo Porras Garulo) fell short of his level, with some uncertainty of pitch leaving his duets with Tucker on shaky ground. Avis, the jealous gadfly (soprano Lauren Fagan), gave dynamism and sparkle to her manipulative flirtations. The choir plays a central role as villagers, rooted in a tribal and popular mentality. The frenzied finale of Act I ― with the crowd of villagers drawn into a frenzied dance ― conveys enormous energy and dynamism (“The storm is coming ― Start the dance!”). The dark, evocative setting is vague about precise temporality (with Avis’ miniskirt and abandoned shopping cart in late 1960s harbor wreck indicators), and the staging is rich in visual layers. The ever-present force of the ocean hits the projected screens with waves leaving us immersed in its relentless power. The four black-clad women served as silent spectators, like a Greek choir or Norse Norns, their dancing and movement highlighting the emotional tone, but sometimes they were but also participants serving as a moral compass, such as when they bring wood heating to Marc for the lighthouse. . The orchestra (conducted by Robin Ticciati) was always crisp and brilliant throughout the demanding and unfamiliar score.
Are Thurza and Marc bonded over their shared moral outlook within a community blinded by its commitment to its age-old rituals of depravity? According to this view, their physical attraction to each other is only part of the dramatic inevitability – their love for humanity merges with their own passion for each other as one. motivation. Tucker conveys Thurza’s magnetism as the product of his integrity and belief in his convictions, and in contrast to Avis’ superficial selfishness.
The chorus that begins Act III is one of the music’s highlights, with the melody jagged in unison, choppy and craggy, as the villagers gather in a cave for Pasko’s trial. Also Laurent (lively sung by James Rutherford) comes across as a leader for the community, as he leads the lawsuit against Pasco. In this version, Laurent’s reaction to Avis’ ruse is extended (claiming that she spent the previous night with Marc in an attempt to keep him from taking responsibility for turning on the beacon). Since everyone sees that Avis is telling a desperate lie, it seems like a distraction to have prolonged paternal outrage here.
I hope a copy of the French booklet will be available soon ― the English version is available HERE. Both versions call for study and reflection — and further performance and interpretation by other ensembles. The fact that Glyndebourne’s production will be available on their streaming platform from August 2022 means that audiences around the world will be able to experience this radical and monumental production. Smyth and Brewster’s creation deserves this praise and recognition, and audiences need the deeper meaning of its story.
A trailer for the opera is HERE
Performances run until June 24e. Listed HERE