The New Yorker

By Alex Ross

August 10, 2015

The next weekend, Bard College presented something even rarer—Ethel Smyth’s 1906 opera, “The Wreckers.” Here was another renegade, not least in matters of sexual desire; Partch explored the gay-hobo subculture, and Smyth was open about her lesbian affections. There, however, the resemblance ends. Smyth, a Londoner, was a majestic Victorian eccentric who, despite her vehement feminist views, cultivated the highest social classes, including Victoria herself. Smyth’s music is conservative in profile, grounded in Romantic rhetoric. Nonetheless, it has an unsettled potency, and deserves to be heard more often than it is. The Bard production was the American stage première of “The Wreckers”; the only other known staging of any of her operas in this country was in 1903, when the Met performed her one-act “Der Wald.”

To get a picture of Smyth, you need only pick up the later novels and diaries of Virginia Woolf, who befriended her in the nineteen-thirties. Smyth provided inspiration for Rose Pargiter, the militant suffragette in “The Years,” and for Miss La Trobe, the avant-garde spinster in “Between the Acts,” who perplexes her fellow-villagers with a surreal pageant of English history. Woolf found Smyth overbearing, as did many people, but envied the older woman’s political outspokenness. (“Her speech rollicking & direct: mine too compressed & allusive.”) Woolf found “The Wreckers” to be “vigorous & even beautiful; & active & absurd & extreme; & youthful”—a fair summary of the work.

The opera’s story concerns the vicious practice, not unknown on the Cornish coast in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, of luring ships onto rocks and plundering their contents. Often, the wreckers found ways to justify this activity on religious grounds; from that twisted logic, Smyth and her librettist, Henry Brewster, spun a tale of criminal fanaticism in which villagers persecute a young fisherman who attempts to warn passing vessels. The fisherman, Mark, is in love with the pastor’s wife, Thirza. In the finale, the two are condemned to death, and drown in a coastal cave as the tide rises.

The score is an uneven creation, at times conventional and at times craggily inspired. It lacks the kind of uninhibited lyricism that makes an aria soar, and the love duet between Mark and Thirza in Act II grinds on. Furthermore, Brewster originally wrote the libretto in French, with an eye toward a Monte Carlo production, which never came about; Smyth later translated it into creaky English. (“Twixt ye and me, o murd’rers, / God be judge!”) But her choral writing packs a mighty punch, as the villagers declaim violent unison lines over propulsive ostinatos that look back to “Boris Godunov” and ahead to “Peter Grimes,” another tale of an outcast fisherman. (“The Wreckers” had a revival at Sadler’s Wells, in London, in 1939, just before Britten left for America.) In the end, the gale force of Smyth’s musical personality banishes doubts.

Leon Botstein, who has long served both as Bard’s president and as its resident conductor, has repeatedly won the gratitude of adventurous New York-area operagoers by reviving such neglected treasures as Blitzstein’s “Regina,” Schreker’s “Der Ferne Klang,” and Meyerbeer’s “Les Huguenots.” Botstein’s account of “The Wreckers,” with the American Symphony in the pit, went over with rough-edged passion. Neal Cooper nearly conquered the taxing tenor role of Mark, and Katharine Goeldner fully mastered the high-lying mezzo role of Thirza, giving heat to that undercooked duet. The production, directed by Thaddeus Strassberger and designed by Erhard Rom, skirted the subversive undertones of the scenario—one senses an allegory of capitalism run amok—but offered thrilling images, including a fire suitable for “Götterdämmerung.” The inventive young Strassberger deserves a shot at the Met, which has all but exhausted its supply of Tony-winning directors who know little about opera.

As for Smyth, perhaps she will one day get another chance on the Met stage. In the 2016-17 season, when the Met presents Kaija Saariaho’s “L’Amour de Loin,” she will at least lose a dubious distinction that would have enraged her—that of being the only female composer ever to be performed by the world’s biggest opera company.

Original full story here.