Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Ethel Smyth's The Boatswain's Mate

Ethel Smyth: The Boatswain's Mate - Hilary Cronin - Spectra Ensemble (Photo Robert Workman)
Ethel Smyth: The Boatswain's Mate - Hilary Cronin
Spectra Ensemble (Photo Robert Workman)
Ethel Smyth The Boatswain's Mate; Hilary Cronin, John Upperton, Shaun Aquilina, dir: Cecilia Stanton, m.dir: John Warner; The Spectra Ensemble at the Grimeborn Festival Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 June 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
An enterprising chamber version of Smyth's fourth opera, in her anniversary year

It is the 150th anniversary of Dame Ethel Smyth's birth this year, and whilst the BBC is doing her proud with a major performance of the Mass in D, it seems to be left to smaller companies to celebrate Smyth's operas. The enterprising Spectra Ensemble presented a chamber version of Smyth's fourth opera The Boatswain's Mate at the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre on Monday 30 July 2018.  Directed by Cecilia Stinton (who directed the Opera Holland Park Young Artists' performance of La traviata), the production featured Hilary Cronin as Mrs Waters, John Upperton as Harry Benn and Shaun Aquilina as Ned Travers. Sets and costumes were by Christianna Mason. Accompanied by piano trio, John Warner directed from the piano with Claudia Fuller (violin) and Hee Yeon Cho (Cello).

Ethel Smyth: The Boatswain's Mate - Lily Evangeline Scott, John Upperton, Michael TK Lam- Spectra Ensemble (Photo Robert Workman)
Lily Evangeline Scott, John Upperton, Michael TK Lam
Spectra Ensemble (Photo Robert Workman)
Smyth's The Boatswain's Mate came after her two-year interregnum when she stopped composing and devoted her time to the Women's Suffrage cause. The subject matter of the opera, with its strong female protagonist, can be seen as reflecting this feminist aspect, though the piece is based on an existing short story by W.W.Jacobs. It is a smaller scale opera, representing a movement away from large-scale grand opera. Though The Boatswain's Mate is full of English folk-songs, its premiere was intended to be in Frankfurt, continuing Smyth's significant career in opera houses in Europe, something which the First World War put paid to. In fact, The Boatswain's Mate seems rather prescient as after the war, forced to concentrate her career in Great Britain, Smyth moved to smaller, more portable works and would never re-visit the grand opera style of The Wreckers (her third opera).

The Boatswain's Mate tells the story of Mrs Waters (Hilary Cronin), the landlady of a pub and a widow, who is being persistently wooed by one of her regulars, a former Naval man, Harry Benn (John Upperton). Benn engages a passing man, former Army man, Ned Travers (Shaun Aquilina) to play a trick on Mrs Waters. Travers is to pretend to burgle her and Benn will 'rescue' her. Of course, it goes wrong, and the opera ends with Waters and Travers coming to a tentative agreement.


One of the features of Smyth's work, which is too often overlook, is the way she writes roles for mature female characters. Thirza, the heroine of The Wreckers, is not a young woman and Mrs Waters is a mature lady.
Though there is a proto-feminist element to The Boatswain's Mate, and Mrs Waters is indeed the focus, Smyth is even-handed and neither of the men is nastily depicted and she uses their military background to contrast them. We even sympathise, a bit, with Harry Benn.

Cecilia Stinton's imaginative production compressed everything into the downstairs studio of the Arcola Theatre, and Christianna Mason's set design provided all the elements needed including the window for Travers to climb into! There is something of farce about the action, and so doors, windows, staircases and hiding holes are needed, Stinton and Mason managed to suggest all the necessary in a stripped down way.

Smyth's music in the opera is sometimes obvious and sometimes highly distinctive. It was fascinating to listen to the way she handled folk-song; Smyth was German-trained through and through, and this came over in the way she handles her material. Whilst a lot was missing from this instrumental reduction, the three instrumentalists worked very hard and created just the right atmosphere.

The downstairs studio at the Arcola Theatre was frankly a little bit too small. The Boatswain's Mate was written for big dramatic voices (the first Mrs Waters, Rosina Buckman, was a noted Isolde). Whilst all concerned did fine things down, there were moments when the volume was a bit too loud and the sound distorted, you longed to hear the piece in a larger theatre.

Hilary Cronin made a delightful Mrs Waters. She was far too young for the role but by setting it in the 1950s it hinted at an early wartime widow-hood and certainly, Cronin managed to bring a nice mix of solid strength to the role, with some charming girlish touches when Mrs Waters realises she has caught Ned Travers' eye. Cronin has a lovely bright, flexible voice which I suspect will grow. Here she coped ably with the tessitura and was touching in Mrs Waters' big solo scene (a piece which is sometimes excerpted).

Shaun Aquilina was similarly too young for Ned Travers, who needs to be retired Army and too old for any other reasonable prospects. Aquilina fitted the role's description admirably (Ned Travers needs to be tall and personable), and he sang with a nice lyric baritone (he was recently covering Guglielmo in Cosi fan tutte with Opera Holland Park). He and Cronin developed the characters burgeoning relationship in a believable fashion, not rushing things yet leaving things positive at the end.

John Upperton was a complete delight as Harry Benn, dead set on wooing Mrs Waters and unable to believe she would continue to say no. Upperton made Benn sympathetic and funny, rather than nasty, and brought a wonderful dash of character comedy into the piece.

These three were supported by a hard-working ensemble of three with Lily Evangeline Scott playing Mary Ann (Mrs Waters' maid), Christopher Foster playing the policeman, and Michael TK Lam.

Smyth's libretto (she wrote it herself) is frankly, sometimes a bit clunky but its heart is in the right place and the performers all engaged us, keeping the action moving and making the farcical elements funny and the characters believable. This was an admirable enterprise, and I do hope that the Spectra Ensemble gets to do the piece again on a larger scale.

Recommended Recording:
The Boatswain's Mate was recorded by Retrospect Opera in 2016, with Nadine Benjamin, Edward Lee, Jeremy Huw Williams and the Lontano Ensemble, conducted by Odaline de la Martinez. See my review [availble from Amazon]. The disc also includes excerpts from the opera that Smyth recorded in 1916 with the original cast.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Spinto showcase: Angel of Fire from Katerina Mina (★★★½) - CD review
  • Bernstein's problem child: a lively & engaging Candide at West Green House (★★★½)   - Opera review
  • Lucretia through a newcomer’s eyes and ears: Britten at the Grimeborn Festival (★★★½) - opera review
  • Prom 17: Parry, Holst & Vaughan Williams (★★★★) - concert review
  • Approaching Winterreise: Angelika Kirchschlager on performing Schubert's great song cycle  - interview
  • Richly Romantic: Mascagni rarity, Isabeau, brought to life at Opera Holland Park (★★★★½) - opera review
  • A disturbing journey: Schubert's Winterreise from Angelika Kirchschlager and Julius Drake (★★★★★)  - concert review
  • Byron's Grand Tour: Alison Pitt & Gavin Roberts at the St Marylebone Festival (★★★½) - concert review
  • It’s Opera Giacomo, but not as we know it - Turandot at Torre del Lago (★★★) - Opera review
  • A study in dementia: a radical new version of Verdi's Nabucco from the Heidenheim Opera Festival (★★★) - Opera review
  • Lithe and musically engaging: Verdi's I Lombardi from the Heidenheim Opera Festival (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Home

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