LEWES, England – Late last autumn there was an unusual sight on a beach in southern England: a team of Glyndebourne Festival Opera staff combing the pebbles for wreckage and of jetsam, then transporting them in wheelbarrows to use them on stage.
It’s an exceptionally realistic take on one of Glyndebourne’s productions this season – ‘The Wreckers’, by British composer Ethel Smyth. The action takes place in an impoverished seaside community in 18th century England, whose inhabitants make a living by salvaging the wreckage of ships they have brought ashore (as many have, historically).
Glyndebourne puts a lot of effort into ‘The Wreckers’, which, despite premiering in 1906, has only been professionally staged a handful of times. For nearly three years, the Glyndebourne Archivist has been combing through documents and old musical scores to assemble a new interpretive edition that matches the composer’s intentions as closely as possible. A production of this new restored version, which will run from Saturday to June 24, will be sung in French, as was the original.
A choir of more than 50 people, a team of dancers and an orchestra of 75 musicians were hired to give pep to the production. And, as a mark of respect, ‘The Wreckers’ has been placed in pole position as the opening show of the summer festival, replacing the big names in opera who usually occupy this place.
“We’re trying to do Ethel justice,” Glyndebourne music director Robin Ticciati said in an interview. “Quite honestly, it was about time someone did.”
In the early decades of the 20th century, Smyth was probably the most famous composer of her generation, but today her work is almost never heard. It was championed by Mahler and by conductor Thomas Beecham, who proclaimed ‘The Wreckers’ a masterpiece and performed it at the Royal Opera House in London. In 1903, Smyth became the first woman to have a work staged at the Metropolitan Opera (and surprisingly remained the only one until 2016).
Yet after his death in 1944, Smyth’s music gradually faded from the repertoire. There are fewer and fewer releases for his symphonies, choral works or chamber pieces, and even fewer stagings of his six operas. Only a handful of recordings exist: the only version of “The Wreckers” currently available is from a live performance in 1994.
Patient Advocacy by American bandleader Leon Botstein gave a production of “The Wreckers” at the Bard SummerScape Festival in 2015 at Bard College in New York, and there have been scattered performances of other Smyth works since. . In November, the Houston Opera will also present “The Wreckers” in its own new staging.
Smyth might have raised an eyebrow: next to nothing for decades, then two new shows at once.
Leah Broad, a music historian at Oxford University who writes a band biography that includes Smyth, said “gender bias” was one of the main reasons why Smyth’s music was so little played.
“There are other issues, but that has a lot to do with it,” Broad said. “She’s a really important historical composer.”
Smyth also has one of the great life stories in music history. Raised in a military household, her father initially forbade her to study music, but she eventually prevailed and attended the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany in 1887.
Although she dropped out after a year, unimpressed with the teaching, she met Dvorak, Grieg and Tchaikovsky – who wrote in her diary that Smyth was “one of the few female composers who can be seriously considered as accomplishing something valuable”. .”
A terrific networker, Symth went on to befriend many well-known people, including George Bernard Shaw and Empress Eugenie of France, and she wentssiped a lot about romantic affairs with men and women.
Smyth had many of her works performed and gained some degree of acceptance, but always struggled with the assumption that what she was doing was essentially second-rate. Writing in The Times of London in 1893, a critic praised her “manly” compositions and hailed “the complete absence of the qualities usually associated with feminine productions”.
More humiliatingly, Smyth was often treated as the butt of a joke – as famous for her energetic personality, her many dogs and her penchant for wearing men’s suits as anything she had written. Virginia Woolf, who maintained an intimate correspondence with the much older Smyth, nevertheless complained in her diary that becoming the subject of Smyth’s affections was like being “caught by a giant crab”.
In 1910, Smyth became involved in the women’s suffrage movement. Two years later, she was sent to Holloway Prison in London for several months after throwing a rock through the window of a government office. When Beecham visited him in prison, he later recalled, he was amazed to see Smyth directing an exercise yard performance of his rousing “Women’s March” from a cell window “in an almost frenzy. bacchanalian, with a toothbrush”.
Like much of Smyth’s music, “The Wreckers” is an intense experience. Inspired by the composer’s visits to remote coastal villages in Cornwall, South West England, it centers on the wife of a local preacher, Thirza, torn between her sense of duty to her Puritan husband and his love for a good-hearted fisherman.
It was no coincidence that Smyth herself was involved in a love triangle with the opera’s librettist, married American poet Henry Brewster, and his wife, Julia. “There is such passion in love music,” said Karis Tucker, who sings Thirza in Glyndebourne. “She knew what she was writing about.”
Ticciati said the score had both power and remarkable range, sounding “sometimes like Brahms, then Mendelssohn, then French exoticism, even late Debussy.” He added: “You think, ‘What is this? And then you realize it’s Ethel Smyth; that’s how it sounds.
As well as evoking a maritime atmosphere in the fog, infused with snippets of folk songs and sea shanties, Smyth seems to find particular relish in crowd scenes, as his supposedly God-fearing villagers prepare to lynch shipwrecked sailors before turning against each other.
There’s more than a hint of “The Crucible” about “The Wreckers,” and as Broad, the music historian, has pointed out, the pre-echoes of another seafaring work, “Peter Grimes” by Benjamin Britten (1945), are even stronger. “Britten had a score of ‘The Wreckers’; it’s right there in his library,” Broad said. “He was never polite to Ethel Smyth’s music, but he was clearly influenced by it.”
Finally, more of us will have the opportunity to make up our own minds. As well as the Houston production, Glyndebourne will bring a semi-staged version of its “Wreckers” to the BBC Proms festival in July. The Proms makes Smyth a major focus and spotlights other works by her, including Mass in D and Concerto for Violin and Horn.
“She’s so behind the times,” Broad said. “When you hear it, it’s like a void in the music is suddenly filled.”
Fearlessly inventive, sensual and at times shocking, “The Wreckers” is a beautiful testament to the woman who created it, Ticciati said. “She’s someone who has a fierce sense of what she believed in, and that comes through in the drama,” he explained.
“I don’t want to say Ethel was larger than life,” Ticciati added, “because I think been his life.”
from May 21 to June 24 at the Glyndebourne Festival in Lewes, England; glyndebourne.com.