Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers at BardSummerScape 2015
Leon Botstein and his American Symphony Orchestra bring to life a second time Ethel Smyth’s dark English opera The Wreckers, the first in a concert at Avery Fisher Hall back in September, 2007, and now in a run of fully staged performances as part of BardSummerScape 2015 in the 800 seat Sosnoff Theater, a component of the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY. These mark the American Stage Premiere of an opera performed literally only a handful of times since its first night in Leipzig in 1906. Mr. Botstein’s intelligent program notes discuss the factors underlying the opera’s unjust neglect; his strong efforts in the pit underline the word ‘unjust.’
The Wreckers tells the tale of a closed religious sect on the cliffs of Cornwall overlooking the sea. They live on the plunder from cargo ships wrecked on the rocks below. The community believes that God is fully okay with this mode of existence, even to extent that He, in divine revelation one supposes, has granted them permission to douse the lighthouse beacons which would under normal circumstances warn the approaching ships of danger. After a ship is dashed to the rocks, the faithful kill all survivors and harvest the swag.
Set Designer Erhard Rom’s unit set at once suggests the piles of cargo crates culled from the wreckage but also serves as the cliffs and rocks. The agility of the singers on this is frequently tested during the performance. Projections, designed by Hannah Wasileski, add to the atmosphere as well as allow for scenic variation. Particularly effective was the large bonfire in Act II.
Two elements disrupt the harmony in the community. For one thing, there seems to be a dearth of wreckage lately, explained perhaps by God’s displeasure, always a possibility here, or, more likely, by the fact that someone in the community is lighting beacon fires at night to warn the ships about the rocks. For this group it’s a crime punishable by a nasty death.
Then also Thirza, wife of the pastor Pascoe, is having serious second thoughts about the clan’s sanctified mission. She is joined in her dissent by Mark, a young fisherman who has heretofore loved her more or less from afar but now, in Act I, chooses to close the distance by giving her a flower.
Here’s the problem, apart from the obvious fact that Thirza is the pastor’s wife. Avis, the foxy daughter of the lighthouse keeper Lawrence, thinks Mark still loves her, though he, in a one-liner, claims to forget this. Perhaps he behaved in a way that Avis misinterpreted as love? Who knows. We never see or hear them in love. And then Pascoe, the pastor, commands Avis to return to the collection plate a necklace from the wreckage so it can be sold to feed the faithful.
By the end of Act I, Avis bears ill will to, let’s see, Mark for ditching her, Thirza for receiving his affections in the aforementioned flower, and now Pascoe for wanting the bling back. So, totally without any evidence or corroboration from other wreckers, the little minx denounces Pascoe to all assembled as the beacon lighting traitor, also citing his wife’s revolutionary views about wrecking as tantamount to witchcraft. That’ll learn ‘em!
The first act, replete with large choral numbers and ballads, takes its time laying out all of these threads. In the small Sosnoff Theater the English is fairly easy to understand, but supertitles clarify any misinterpretations. Act II has a lovely prelude evoking the misty cliffs of Cornwall, soon to be followed by an ecstatic love duet between Mark and Thirza a la Tristan und Isolde. Yes there is Wagner in Smyth’s score, and yes she studied music in Leipzig, but she also draws a lot of musical inspiration from her contemporaries, especially Delius and Debussy, as well as Arnold Bax, Frank Bridge, and Granville Bantock. Best advice: savor it as Ethel Smyth’s art alone. Let her speak to you. Playing name-that-tune is a distraction from the present moment.
Baritone Louis Otey, who sang Pascoe with the ASO and Botstein in 2007, repeats this central role of the leader nearly betrayed. Otey’s considerable on-stage presence dominates his scenes. Katharine Goeldner is a well-grounded, sincere, passionate Thirza, a solid partner for Neal Cooper’s manly Mark. Make no mistake: the role of Mark requires a heldentenor effort. To Cooper’s credit he rises to the challenge admirably.
Sky Ingram’s Avis stands out from the other community members by her flaunted beauty and vanity. Her silvery voice rises above the fray. The trouser role of Jack is taken by Kendra Broom.
Of the other members of the faith, Lawrence, the lighthouse keeper, is formidably sung by Michael Mayes. Tallan and Harvey, who open the opera with their various comments about drink and the ‘drought’ of new ships, are taken by Dennis Petersen and Peter Van Derick respectively.
The large chorus is under the direction of Chorus Master James Bagwell.
Director Thaddeus Strassberger creates a tense emotional landscape, taking advantage of his players strengths. Thus Thirza and Mark are strong, centered characters, Pascoe is driven, but Lawrence is even more of a zealot, and Avis is a borderline tart. Strassberger also give the chorus behavioral muscle.
This, my sixth opera in as many seasons at BardSummerScape, follows the same path as all of the others. Leon Botstein proves himself to be the master of musical preparation and execution: the cast, chorus and orchestra perform The Wreckers to the highest standards, as if it were one of the more frequently staged operas in the familiar repertory. Conspicuous is the quality, energy and commitment of all concerned.
Performance date: July 26, 2015; photographs by Cory Weaver.
The Wreckers is performed again on the evening of Friday, July 31 @ 7:30 p.m. and on the afternoons of Wednesday, July 29 and Sunday, August 2 @ 2:00 p.m.
Don’t miss it. Bard College is closer to the city you than you think and well worth the trip! And it only rains when you’re indoors.
Well, I exaggerate a little on this last point perhaps...
If you’re one to prepare for the unusual by listening, know that a 1994 commercial recording of a concert performance of The Wreckers can be found on Conifer Classics (2 CDs).
Enjoy the rest of your summer!