Ethel Smyth’s opera comes to the BBC Proms for a second time.
For vast swathes of the 20th century Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers was seldom if ever performed. It has in more recent years enjoyed some outings including a performance at the Proms in 1994 and productions by Bard Summerscape, conducted by Leo Botstein, in 2015 and Arcadian Opera, conducted by Justin Lavender who sang Marc in the Proms performance, in 2018. Melly Still’s production at Glyndebourne this summer, however, constituted the first time that the opera had ever been performed in its original French. This is because, although Henry Brewster wrote the libretto in that language, Smyth had considerable trouble getting the work performed, leading to the premiere taking place in a German translation by John Bernhoff under the title of Strandrecht in Leipzig in 1906. Mahler was considering a production at the Vienna Court Opera in 1907, which had it come off could have seen the opera go on to enjoy many more, but then lost his post as director there. Beecham presented the work at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1909 and Covent Garden the following year in English, but after this performances were few and far between until the 1990s Prom helped to bring the piece to public attention once more.
Every year Glyndebourne presents a semi-staged version of one of its festival productions at the Proms, and its performance of The Wreckers in the Royal Albert Hall can only help to raise the work’s profile even further. The story is based on the macabre tradition of wrecking, which persisted for hundreds of years and continued in places into the 19th century. This saw remote coastal communities deliberately lure ships onto rocks so that they could then plunder their cargoes in the belief that the barren landscapes they inhabited justified them obtaining goods and wealth in this way. In the opera the wrecking cause is very much led by the local preacher Pasko, with him urging the Cornish community to pray for ships to come and suggesting that their absence is a judgment for sin among the people. In reality they are not coming because the fisherman Marc, who is sickened by the practice, has been lighting beacons to warn them of the danger.
The lighthouse keeper’s daughter Avis is in love with Marc, but he tells her he no longer reciprocates her feelings and it transpires he has fallen in love with Pasko’s wife Thurza, who the community treat as an outsider because she refuses to join them at prayer. When Thurza learns that the villagers are aware that someone is lighting beacons, though they do not know who, she urges Marc to refrain from doing so, but after a lengthy encounter in which their feelings for each other lead them to agree to run away, they end up lighting one together. Through a misunderstanding, Pasko himself is labelled as the beacon lighter and he does not defend himself because doing so would incriminate his wife. When Marc confesses to prevent an innocent man from suffering, he also omits Thurza’s name, but she volunteers her guilt. The pair are condemned to death by being left in the cave where the court takes place as the tide comes in so that the ending, combined with the whole notion of the oppressive and judgmental community, makes the story feel like a cross between Aida, Les pêcheurs de perles and Peter Grimes.
Opinions always seem to have varied over the strict quality of the opera’s music. Mahler was a big fan, but views have ranged from it being ‘strikingly prophetic of Peter Grimes’ to it making use of some of Wagner’s and Strauss’s techniques while slipping all ‘too readily into operatic convention’. When the opera is heard as it is here, however, it feels impossible to emerge with anything other than a positive view of its overall standard.
“Every year Glyndebourne presents a semi-staged version of one of its festival productions at the Proms…”
The chorus proved overwhelming as the vocal writing contains many moments that emphasise the community’s cliquey and formidable nature, rather as Britten’s music in Peter Grimes does. This was surely one of the largest choruses that Glyndebourne has ever brought to the Proms and as they donned masks to show how wrecking was a ritualistic activity and confronted the audience they could not have sounded better. In Act I they sing in an offstage church service as a ‘backdrop’ to the confrontation that takes place centre stage. To render this effect in the Albert Hall the director for the Proms performance Donna Stirrup saw them stand in rows behind the orchestra so that it really felt as if they were in pews. By facing the back they achieved something of the sound that might have been produced offstage in a more conventional theatre, and with them being so close to the organ as it was played and chorus master Aidan Oliver conducted them, the feeling of a service came across clearly. The fact that the front of the stage was bathed in light while the chorus stood in shadow completed the effect.
The cast was superb, with Philip Horst excelling as Pasko as his clear and assertive bass-baritone cut through the air. Lauren Fagan was a class act as Avis, Rodrigo Porras Garulo produced a notably ringing sound as Marc while, as Thurza, Karis Tucker revealed a deeply intriguing and full mezzo-soprano. There were also excellent performances from Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as Tallan, James Rutherford as Laurent, Donovan Singletary as Harvey and Marta Fontanals-Simmons as Jacquet. Robin Ticciati’s conducting was as assured as it was nuanced and the orchestra also played a major part in making the evening feel so accomplished.
Some costumes looked contemporary as T-shirts contained printed words, while others seemed older. It thus appeared as if this presentation was set in modern times, only the general poverty of the community meant that many people sported out of date clothes. This was interesting because while it was easy for us to see Pasko as merely asserting self-justificatory arguments for wrecking, the language he used suggested he genuinely believed in what he did as the means of ensuring the community’s survival. On the other side, Marc and Thurza’s own assertions implied they saw themselves as being ahead of their time so that, despite their hatred of wrecking, they did not see Pasko as evil so much as adhering to old ways of doing things. It is one thing for this to be the case when wrecking can be viewed as occurring entirely in the past, but with the modern costumes suggesting that these people were carrying out this practice now, the implication was that if there is a better way then we have still not learnt it. This provided plenty of food for thought on an evening that delivered a first rate performance of a work whose star, we can hope, will continue to rise.
• Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s production of The Wreckers will be available from August on the new streaming service Glyndebourne Encore.
• This Prom, like all others, was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is currently available on BBC Sounds.
• The BBC Proms continue until 10 September. For details of all events and tickets visit the website.