Saturday 30 June 2012

The Wreckers

Ethel Smyth by John Singer Sargent
Ethel Smyth
by John Singer Sargent
Ethel Smyth’s opera The Wreckers has had a somewhat bumpy history from its very outset. It has claim to be her most satisfactory opera, I hesitate to use the word greatest, but is certainly not her most performed work. One of the few post-war performances of the work was a Proms performance in the 1994 conducted by Odaline de la Martinez which somehow failed to quite bring the work to life. That it can be brought to life, is something that I can confirm as in the early 1980’s I attended a performance of it at Warwick University (directed by Graham Vick with Anne Mason as Thirza). This transcended the limits imposed by the theatre and the young cast (a mixture of students and professionals) created a thrilling dramatic impact which has stayed with me. The Albert Hall performances on the other hand were rather staid by comparison.

The Wreckers is a strange work because, though premiered in 1906, it contains little reference either to the work of Wagner or to Debussy. Smyth’s music is clearly of the Stanford/Parry/Brahms axis, not surprising given her age and the fact that she was trained in Leipzig. But structurally the opera seems to ignore many of the recent developments, at least in the first two acts. But in act three, when Mark and Thirza are tried by the wreckers and then marooned in the cave, things really take off; or they can do.

The Wreckers is a work that it is easy to knock, you can list all the things it isn’t - it is certainly not Tristan and neither is it Peter Grimes. And if you think that Strauss's Salome was being premiered around the same time, you get an idea how conservative were some of Smyth's ideas. But compare it to English operas of the 19th century and you get a different perspective, you see how much Smyth managed to achieve, and the work was certainly highly regarded by contemporaries.

Nikisch programmed its premiere in Leipzig, but was he removed from post before he could perform it. So the premiere was done by a replacement who mangled the last act with cuts. Smyth was so incensed that she took away the parts (an act she later came to regret). The follow up performances in Prague were a fiasco because the impresario was ill. Beecham produced it at Covent Garden in 1910. And then Smyth’s luck seemed to turn, she had performances lined up in Munich along with plans for her other operas. These plans, of course, were stymied by the First World War.

But even before the first performance there were problems. The libretto was written in French, partly because the librettist Henry Brewster wrote his poetry in French, and partly because there was interest from Messager and Emma Calve who were coming to Covent Garden. In the event,  Messager and Calve fell out and no French speaking house was interested.

Henry Brewster was the child of Americans but born and brought up in France. He was a poet and a philosopher. When he wrote prose he wrote in English and when he wrote poetry he wrote in French. His work seems to have all but disappeared; if it wasn’t for the fact the Smyth both set his texts and wrote about him in her memoirs, he would seem to have dropped from the historical record. I have never been able to see any of his published books of poetry.

It was Brewster’s influence that ensured that the opera has one of the best constructed libretti of an English opera pre-Britten. The libretto of The Wreckers has the strength of a story well told, without too much of the standard opera padding common. But the fact that he wrote in French has meant he lumbered the piece with an awkward difficulty. Smyth got a hack to do the translation from French into German, but collaborated herself on the translation into English. Though the piece was first published in French, the vocal score in English and German became the standard one and many people assume that Smyth set it in English. The simple problem is that the translation is terrible, the English libretto full of awful libretto-ese. If you read the work in the standard English version then it would certainly put you off.

This situation has been remedied recently as Amanda Holden has done a new English version which was used when Duchy Opera performed the work in 2006 (for its centenary). It is a pity that such a translation wasn’t done earlier as it would probably have made acceptance of the piece more straightforward. But I have to confess that I would like to hear the piece done in French, just once, as a curiosity.

The odd thing about the relative lack of performances of The Wreckers is that in Thirza, the heroine, it contains a great role for a mezzo-soprano. And one that is not age dependent. The plot is not dependent on suspension of disbelief, you don’t have to believe that the 40 year old woman is actually 16. It is just as believable if Thirza  is 40 or 50, running off with a younger man, her last chance of happiness.

The plot of The Wreckers probably had resonance for the opera’s creators because they too had been in a triangle. Though Smyth is nowadays associated with relationships with women, thanks to her impinging on Virginia Woolf and her circle, her relationship with Henry Brewster was probably the single most influential one of her life. When she first met Brewster he was married (not happily), to a friend of Smyth’s. By the time he became free, when his wife died, his relationship with Smyth seems to have slipped back into friendship. There are, I understand, copious letters between them and after he died, in 1908, he had a Prince Albert-like influence with Smyth constantly referring to what HB would do.

He was involved in the libretti of two of her operas and in later life she developed an oratorio from his philosophical work The Prisoner. But apart from that Brewster has seemingly evaporated.

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