The Boatswain’s Mate and The Wreckers – Overture by Smyth

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COMPOSERS: Dame Ethel Smyth
LABELS: Retrospect Opera
WORKS: The Boatswain’s Mate; The Wreckers – Overture*
PERFORMER: Nadine Benjamin, Edward Lee, Jeremy Huw Williams, Simon Wilding, Ted Schmitz, Rebecca Louise Dale; Lontano Ensemble/Odaline de la Martinez; *Symphony Orchestra/Ethel Smyth


‘It’s so Ethel!’: those were the words of Odaline de la Martinez, decades ago, enthusing over some characteristic detail from one of the composer’s scores. Lyrically enhanced but low on pugnacity, Smyth’s The Boatswain’s Mate might not be as ‘Ethel’ in sound, say, as the overture to her grand opera The Wreckers, included as an extra, taken from an old Columbia 78. But it’s still wonderful to have The Boatswain in its first full recording – the first release from a new enterprise, Retrospect Opera, dedicated to Britain’s forgotten treasures.

In 1916 the opera’s appearance signalled the combatant and skilful composer’s change of direction, from dramatic gusto to a lighter, slightly folksy manner. A resonant church acoustic isn’t the perfect background for the plot of WW Jacobs’s short story about comic wooing at a country inn. But its echoing halo brings an extra bounce to Smyth’s chamber scoring, superbly dispatched by De la Martinez’s forces. In song and dialogue, Edward Lee supplies vocal sparkle as Benn, the inn owner’s hopeful wooer. Nadine Benjamin’s feisty Mrs Waters, given the most endearing arias, comes over almost as well; not so Jeremy Huw Williams’s rather muddy Travers. 

Smyth’s libretto, nurtured after two years’ fighting the suffragette cause (her March of the Women is ingeniously quoted), stretches Jacobs’s slight material too far. But that’s not a problem in the filler: nine delectable HMV selections from 1916, fragrant with history, recorded under Smyth’s baton with the original cast.


Geoff Brown