Smyth: The Wreckers

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Smyth
LABELS: Conifer
WORKS: The Wreckers
PERFORMER: Anne-Marie Owens, Justin Lavender, Peter Sidhom, David Wilson-Johnson, Judith Howarth, Anthony Roden, Annemarie SandHuddersfield Choral Society, BBC Philharmonic/Odaline de la Martinez
CATALOGUE NO: CDCF 250/1 DDD

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Ethel Smyth’s opera was written in 1905 and attracted the attention of conductors of the eminence of Mahler and Nikisch, when the composer took it around the opera houses of central Europe in an effort to get it performed.

It was first heard in Leipzig (in a cut performance, much to Smyth’s distaste) and reached London under Beecham’s baton in 1909. It has been performed intermittently since then, including an interwar Sadler’s Wells staging, but the semi-staged Prom performance in the Royal Albert Hall last July was its first professional outing in Britain for many a year.

A little over five weeks after that performance, the CDs arrive, but the result shows little sign of a rush release. The live recording was supplemented by a patching session the following day, which has done away with applause from all but the very end. Reports from the Prom suggested a lack of interpretative commitment on the part of conductor and orchestra, but listening to the original broadcast and now to these CDs, this seems to prove that performances in the RAH invariably sound better via the microphone.

This is as full-blooded a reading as one could wish for of what is one of the nearest misses of English opera between Dido and Aeneas and Peter Grimes. As the pair of illicit lovers, Mark and Thirza, Anne-Marie Owens and Justin Lavender are passionately involved in the drama, though Lavender tends to over-aspirate under pressure.

Thirza’s husband, Pascoe, is strongly characterised by Peter Sidhom and there are memorable contributions, too, from David Wilson-Johnson as Lawrence the lighthouse keeper (in steadier voice than he has been recently), Judith Howarth as his daughter, Avis, and Brian Bannatyne-Scott as his brother-in-law, Harvey.

Doubts may remain about some of the music. It is true that it isn’t consistently inspired, alternating the sublime and the banal, but on balance it succeeds particularly well in conveying the drama in hand. Its biggest let-down, as in so many English-language operas of the era, is its libretto (Smyth’s own translation of the French original by Henry Brewster), which is full of Gothic archaisms and often comes close to the back-to-front phraseology of early Wagner translations – ‘’Tis strange! Methinks my ears deceive me,’ sings one character; ‘A ship on the rocks is driving,’ yell the chorus.

But anyone needing reassurance about the quality of much of the music should sample the evocative orchestral prelude to Act II, ‘On the Cliffs of Cornwall’, the ensuing love duet or the tragic, passionate ending.

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Matthew Rye