Sunday, 26 July 2020

The Wreckers & Euryanthe from Fisher Centre, Summerscape at Bard College, City Music Foundation Young Artists

Ethel Smyth: The Wreckers - USA premiere at SummerScape 2015
Ethel Smyth: The Wreckers - USA premiere at SummerScape 2015
There are certain significant operas that get dusted off once per generation, everybody says how terrible the libretto is and the work is put back on the shelf again. The perceived awfulness of the libretto being a comfortable excuse for not examining the work in detail. Sometimes, of course, the libretto is truly awful and I have never yet seen an entirely satisfactory performance of Emmanuel Chabrier's Le roi malgre lui, but I keep hoping. Yet that composer's operette L'etoile makes a salutary lesson, written as entertainment for Offenbach's theatre with its tiny orchestra, the work is intended to be fluff and if you don't take the work seriously (even comedy has to be taken seriously), or if you try to make it something that it is not, then it fails. L'etoile is a work where small-scale performances on a budget often work, but the last large scale one we saw, at Covent Garden, firmly threw the baby out with the bath water.

The two operas that we saw on-line this week, Ethel Smyth's The Wreckers and Weber's Euryanthe, are both problem operas. Both are from the SummerScape festival which happens every Summer at the Fisher Center at Bard College in the Hudson River Valley of upstate New York. The center's website has an admirable streaming page full of rarities which the festival has performed.

In 2015 they gave the American premiere of Ethel Smyth's opera The Wreckers, with Leon Botstein conducting the American Symphony Orchestra and a cast including Katharine Goeldner as Thirza, Sky Ingram as Sky Ingram, Louis Otey as Pascoe and Neal Cooper as Mark. The production was directed by Thaddeus Strassberger.

That the production happened at all is wonderful, Smyth's opera gets very few outings. And it is a much misunderstood work. Even if critics get over the 'It isn't as good as Peter Grimes' syndrome (forgetting that Britten's masterwork was premiered 40 years after Smyth's opera) there is a bit tendency for commentators to berate Harry Brewster's libretto. He was a philosopher and poet, part of the same American diaspora as Henry James. Brewster's libretto is very fine, for the period, and perfectly adequate. Unfortunately he wrote it in French, as Les Naufrageurs, and it was in that language that Ethel Smyth set the opera. I don't believe it has ever been performed as such, and it would make intriguing listening. A French premiere falling through, a hasty German translation was arranged at the work premiered in German in Leipzig, and the version we know is the result of a similar hasty English translation, which Smyth herself in her autobiography describes as hack-work (she had to pay for it herself). When Duchy Opera performed The Wreckers some years ago, it commissioned Amanda Holden to produce an updated libretto and it was a shame that SummersScape did not use this rather than the original Edwardian fustian.

Strassberger's production was relatively straightforward, but Erhard Rom's set looked a nightmare to navigate with its assembled ranks of uneven blocks, and in one important duet between Thirza and Mark I was aware of how the two singers were clearly concentrating on the placement of their feet, rather then imbuing the production with drama. The whole had a slightly worthy feel, it did not help that Goeldner's costume as Thirza made her look rather too staid, Thirza is meant to be something of a free spirit who is drawn to Mark. Smyth does not always write memorable tunes, and The Wreckers does need a little help, but I have seen productions where the whole thrillingly catches fire. At SummerScape in 2015 it got an important outing, but I doubt that the performance would have converted many doubters. The Wreckers is available from the Fisher Center's Upstreaming website.

The case of Carl Maria von Weber's Euryanthe is slightly different. The music is clearly very great and very influential, though the libretto is commonly held as unworkable. Yet Christoph Loy at the Theater an der Wien (available on Naxos) calmly gave a powerful psychological account of the work which showed it could work, if you trusted it. Whilst there is a dramaturgical clumsiness about the work, I think another problem is that the main engine of the plot, the suicide of Adolar's sister, is no longer so shocking and a thing to be hidden at all costs, as it was in the early 18th century.

Kevin Newbury's 2014 production at Bard used a late 19th century setting, and concentrated on the interaction of the characters rather than worrying too much about the Romantic flummery of the plot. William Burden made a strong, war-hero Adolar with Ellie Dehn as a sparky Euryanthe, less passive than usual. The dark couple, Eglantine and Lysiart were cast from a pair of talented young singers, Wendy Bryn Harmer and Ryan Kuster who were simply too blandly personable, without the sense of underlying evil. Whilst not as psychologically acute as Loy's production, the performance made a reasonable case for Weber's work and again, made you wonder at its neglect. Euryanthe is available from the Fisher Center's Upstreaming website.

It was lovely, this week, to catch some of the lunch-time recitals from the City Music Foundation; these were broadcast live from St Pancras Clock Tower in lieu of the CMF Young Artists' residency at the Wallace Collection. Viola player Rosalind Ventris was joined by her husband Joseph Fort (who is director of the chapel choir at King's College, London) at the piano for a lovely recital which moved from Telemann and Tchaikovsky, through Elgar and a work by viola virtuoso Lionel Tertis, to the lesser known but well worth exploring Sonata Pastorale from the American violist and composer Lillian Fuchs (1901-1995), a work from the Argentinian composer Carlos Guastavino (1912-2000), and something from Thea Musgrave [YouTube]. And soprano Anna Cavaliero's recital was equally engaging. Accompanied by pianist Natalie Burch, Cavallero created a sequence which used parts of Britten's Les Illuminations, alongside Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer 1915, and music by Debussy, Korngold and Richard Strauss. I was particularly struck by the Korngold songs which were completely new to me. [YouTube]

The Opera Story's latest Episode was Dani Howard and JL Walker's Nature: Water & Air with some stunning visual footage by photographer Michael Matti. I chatted to Dani Howard last year [see our interview], and she wrote The Opera Story's 2019 opera, Robin Hood. This year's opera, Pandora's Box was postponed due to lockdown, but I recently chatted to its composer Alex Woolf about eventful lockdown [see our interview].

The chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Omar Meir Wellber, has started a new podcast series, The Music Room in which he talks to musicians about music in more detail, in this first episode Beethoven with violinist Lisa Obert [BBC]

Recorded during lockdown some time ago, but I only came across it recently, a Pokemon Melody featuring the music of Junichi Masuda from the well known game, arranged by Andres Solo and performed by members of West of England Youth Orchestra, presented by Wiltshire Music Centre and Evolutions TV [YouTube].

The young choristers from the choir of New College, Oxford have been busy in lock down, and recorded a lovely account the aria 'Letzte stunde, brich herein' with instrumentalists from Oxford Bach Soloists, and lovely to see the different ways the fifteen boys cope with the strangeness of singing in lockdown [YouTube]. There was more Bach from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's Bach, the Universe and Everything from Kings Place where Steven Devine directed a performance of Bach's Cantata BWV113, Herr Jesu Christ, du hochstes Gott, plus music by Kauffmann, Lassus, and Telemann, and the speaker this week was professor Sophie Scott. Whilst she might be professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College, London, she was talking on a seriously funny subject, the science of laughter [YouTube].

This week was the Ryedale Festival; having missed the festival in previous years, I had promised myself that this year I would get to Yorkshire for it. However, the festival came to me (and many others) with performances recorded in iconic Yorkshire venues, and all available on-line. There is lots to listen to, but I would like to highlight just three events. Cellist Abel Selaocoe mixed music from South Africa with Bach, and mixed singing and playing to stunning effect (even on-line the energy positively fizzed), violinist Rachel Podger also played Bach's Cello Suite No. 6 in a version for violin, alongside Biber and Vilsmayr in the lovely chapel of Castle Howard, and soprano Rowan Pierce and pianist Christopher Glynn, artistic director of the festival, performed a lovely programme of Purcell, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Strauss, Grieg, Ireland, Quilter, Swann and Richard Strauss [Ryedale Festival's Ryestream]

I am friends on Facebook with all sorts of fascinating people and browsing Facebook can sometimes be a rabbit hole down which you disappear. But the other day I was notified that Icelandic composer Helgi Rafn Ingvarsson was live, and I heard him and Helen in an entrancing performance of Harmljóð Snæfellsjökuls / Glacier’s Elegy [Facebook]. Helgi trained at the Guildhall School and had works performed at Tete a Tete: The Opera Festival,  so his work may not be as unfamiliar as you think.


In 2019 the Gentlemen of the ENO sang the Comedian Harmonists' delightful Wochenend und Sonnenschein at the funeral of Sir Jonathan Miller. As 21 July 2020 would have been Sir Jonathan's 86th birthday the six of them recorded a lock-down version. And if you think the song seems vaguely familiar it is better knowadays as Happy Days are Here Again! [YouTube]. And another memorial, on the 10th anniversary of the death of tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson, singer Elinor Rolfe Johnson, Catriona Morrison, Ed Lyon, Christopher Purves and pianist Ian Tindale, joined together to perform Brahm's Abendlied, Op.92 in a video produced by another tenor Jorge Navarro Colorado [YouTube]

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