Wednesday 28 September 2016

Ethel Smyth The Boatswain's Mate receives a welcome first recording

Ethel Smyth - The Boatswain's Mate
Ethel Smyth The Boatswain's Mate; Nadine Benjamin, Edward Lee, Jeremy Huw Williams, Lontano Ensemble, Odaline de la Martinez; Retrospect Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 19 2016
Star rating: 4.0

First recording for Ethel Smyth's charming fourth opera

Remarkably, this is only the second of Ethel Smyth's six operas to make it to disc. Despite The Boatswain's Mate being a relatively compact, approachable and tuneful work, one which has managed to garner a modest track record of performances (I heard it performed in Cambridge in the 1980s). Now Retrospect Opera, a company devoted to recording music by 19th and early 20th century British composers) has recorded the work.

Odaline de la Martinez conducts the Lontano Ensemble. (In fact Odaline de la Martinez conducted Smyth's The Wreckers at the BBC Proms in 1994, a performance which was issued on disc thus giving us the first Smyth opera on record. ) The cast includes Nadine Benjamin as Mrs Waters, Edward Lee as Harry Benn, Jeremy Huw Williams as Ned Travers, with Ted Schmitz, Rebecca Louise Dale and Mark Nathan. Rather invaluably the disc also includes excerpts from the opera recorded by Smyth herself after the work's premiere in 1916 with Courtice Pounds, Gilbert Barton, Frederick Ranalow and Rosina Buckman.

Like her contemporary Charles Villiers Stanford (who was four years older than Smyth), Ethel Smyth studied in Leipzig where the memory of Mendelssohn helped to ensure the reputation of the Leipzig Conservatory. In fact Smyth's entire early career has to be understood in a European context rather than an English one. When the First World War started, Smyth had a number of performances planned in major European opera houses (including the premiere of The Boatswain's Mate in Frankfurt, in German). These of course fell through. Her failure to find a sympathetic place in the English musical establishment and the beginnings of her deafness led to a crisis in confidence, and only two further operas followed, neither of them on the scale of Smyth's big romantic drama The Wreckers.

But there had already been a hiatus in Smyth's career, having heard Mrs Pankhurst speaking she spent two years supporting the suffragist cause, returning to composing in December 1913 during a trip to Egypt (memorably described in her memoir Beecham and Pharaoh). One of the results of this was The Boatswain's Mate. Lacking a premiere in Frankfurt, owing to the war, the opera was premiered in London in 1916 conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham and had moderate success.

The libretto is the composer's own, after a story by W.W.Jacobs and tells the story of a pub landlady, Mrs Waters (Nadine Benjamin) who is a widow and is resolutely independent. One of her customers, Harry Benn (Edward Lee) repeatedly proposes but she swears she will not marry again. Benn enlists the help of a traveller, Ned Travers (Jeremy Huw Williams) in a plot to convince Mrs Waters that she needs a man in her life. The plot fails and we are left at the end with the strong suggestion that Mrs Waters falls for Travers.

The Boatswain's Mate is not strictly a feminist opera, but it is written from a feminine point of view and like Thirza in The Wreckers, Mrs Waters is a strong, three dimensional female character. In fact she is the most rounded character in the opera, and Smyth breaks opera comique conventions when, in Act One, we get the big solo for Mrs Waters, 'What if I were young again' where we get to understand more of her inner feelings.

The composer whose work the piece really puts me in mind is Smetana, and like Smyth, Smetana's work involved both folk-influenced opera with spoken dialogue and large scale German-influenced romantic opera.

There is a convention is some more serious opera comique that later acts have more music and less dialogue, here Smyth follows this to an ultimate conclusion and writes a first act with dialogue and a through composed second act. Critics at the time were uncertain, and you cannot help wishing she had written the whole through.

The recording is not perfect, but it certainly brings out the delight of the piece. The spoken dialogue in Act One is a bit stiff, with the mock country accents jarring and only Jeremy Huw Williams (who uses his native Welsh accent) sounds convincing. But some of the fault is Smyth's as the joins between dialogue and music are a bit rough at times.

Nadine Benjamin makes a lovely Mrs Waters, with Edward Lee and Jeremy Huw Williams providing a fine double act as the two conspirators. All clearly enjoy their job, and we have plenty of lovely moments such as the carefree waltz which happens when Mrs Waters tells Benn than he will have to dig the grave for the 'dead' Travers. Their final scene, rather than being conclusive is the promise of a beginning, reminding us that Smyth understood her two principal characters to be mature people (Travers is spoken of as being too old for the army), something nicely captured by Benjamin and Williams.

The role of the Policeman (Simon Wilding) is quite small, but important as he contributes to lovely quartet with which Smyth crowns the plotting and which is striking for the way the orchestra fades away at one point to leave the four singers a cappella. The role of Mary Ann (Mrs Waters' maid of all work) is a small one, here admirably taken by Rebecca Louise Dale.

After the opera proper we hear a substantial group of excerpts conducted by the composer, important documents indeed.

Certainly Ethel Smyth understood the attraction's of Gilbert and Sullivan's style of operetta, she once told Sullivan that The Mikado was his masterpiece. But The Boatswain's Mate whilst remaining light, has more serious concerns which we can understand in the context of Smyth's central European musical background. This recording successfully brings out the work's charms, with all concerned treating the work on its own terms. Odaline de la Martinez and the ensemble surround the singers with some lovely instrumental and solo moments.

Ethel Smyth (1844-1944) - The Boatwain's Mate
Mrs Waters (Nadine Benjamin)
Harry Benn (Edward Lee)
Ned Travers (Jeremy Huw Williams)
Policeman (Simon Wilding)
The Man (Ted Schmitz)
Mary Ann (Rebecca Louise Dale)
Mark Nathan
Lontano Ensemble
Odaline de la Martinez (conductor)
Recorded St Mary's Church, Walthamstow, 15-17 September 2015, St Gabriel's Church, Walthamstow 19 April 2016.

Ethel Smyth (1844-1944) - The Boatwain's Mate (excerpts)
Harry Benn (Courtice Pounds)
Ned Travers (Frederick Ranalow)
Mrs Waters (Rosina Buckman)
Ethel Smyth (conductor)
Recorded 1916

Ethel Smyth - The Wreckers overture
Ethel Smyth (conductor)
Recorded 1930
RETROSPECT OPERA RO001 2CDs [47.12, 73.44]
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