Out of the Shadows

Sunday, 14 August 2022

Ethel Smyth in lighter mode: The Boatswain's Mate returns to the Grimeborn Festival

Ethel Smyth: The Boatswain's Mate - Josephine Goddard - Spectra Ensemble (Photo Lidia Crisafulli)
Ethel Smyth: The Boatswain's Mate - Josephine Goddard - Spectra Ensemble (Photo Lidia Crisafulli)

Ethel Smyth: The Wreckers; Josephine Goddard, John Upperton, Shaun Aquilina, Spectra Ensemble, director: Cecilia Stinton, musical director: John Warner; Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre
Reviewed 13 August 2022 (★★★½)

Enterprising small-scale revival of Smyth's innovative and charming comedy, with an engaging cast having great fun

After the premiere of her opera The Wreckers in 1906, Ethel Smyth's operatic career took a somewhat new direction. For a start, she took time out to devote to the Suffragette cause, but when she went to Egypt in 1913 to work without distractions, it was to write a two act comic opera. The move was deliberate, but prescient, after three large-scale grand operas she felt the need for something smaller, felt it in tune with the times. And of course, in 1914 plans for German performances of The Wreckers, Der Wald and The Boatswain's Mate were shelved; Smyth's musical career, hitherto substantially based in Germany, would never be the same again. 

Intriguingly, one of the subjects that she seriously considered for the opera, before settling on the story by W.W. Jacobs, was J.M. Synge's play Riders to the Sea, which was used by RVW some years later.

The Boatswain's Mate isn't a masterpiece, but it has plenty of engaging music and an intriguingly feminist edge to the drama; the opera's protagonist Mrs Waters was reputedly based on Mrs Pankhurst (with whom Smyth was for a time in love). But its compact forces mean that in the 20th century it became one of Smyth's most performed operas.

Ethel Smyth: The Boatswain's Mate - Shaun Aquilina, John Upperton - Spectra Ensemble (Photo Lidia Crisafulli)
Ethel Smyth: The Boatswain's Mate - Shaun Aquilina, John Upperton - Spectra Ensemble (Photo Lidia Crisafulli)

The Spectra Ensemble first performed Ethel Smyth's The Boatswain's Mate at the Grimeborn Festival in 2018, in the downstairs studio. The production returned for the 2022 Grimeborn Festival, revised and expanded to fit the larger upstairs studio at the Arcola Theatre (seen 13 August 2022), with further performances planned at North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford, Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh  and St George’s Theatre, Great Yarmouth
. Cecilia Swinton directed and musical director John Warner played piano with Emily Earl, violin, and Meera Priyanka Raja (cello). Josephine Goddard was Mrs Waters, John Upperton was Harry Benn, and Shaun Aquilina was Ned Travers, with Beca Davies, Philippe Durrant, and Robert Winslade Anderson.

The opera's setting was moved to the 1950s, and Ellie Roser's set managed to conjure the right atmosphere from just curtains and a few tables. For the overture, we saw Mrs Waters' maid, Mary Ann (Beca Davies) who is absent for most of the action, sunning herself on the beach with a young man  (Philippe Durrant) wanting her to play with a beach ball. She does so, and during the musical sequence that includes a version of Smyth's March of the Women beats the young man at the game.

And it is this focus on women's independence that makes the work stand out. At the core of it, slap-bang between the two acts, is the long solo for Mrs Waters (Josephine Goddard) where we get much further into her emotional life than is usual in a comic piece and Mrs Waters is a remarkably sympathetic portrait of a woman of a certain age. 

It is also a very melodic piece, with Smyth incorporating several folk-songs into the score. This is emphasised by the first Act which is written as a number opera, whilst the second Act is through-composed, something that disturbed both Sir Thomas Beecham (an early supporter of Smyth's music) and early critic, and continues to excite interest though I have to confess that I have always found that the combination bothers me less than some, though the joins between spoken and sung are not perfect.

Ethel Smyth: The Boatswain's Mate - Josephine Goddard, Robert Winslade Anderson, Philippe Durrant - Spectra Ensemble (Photo Lidia Crisafulli)
Ethel Smyth: The Boatswain's Mate - Josephine Goddard, Robert Winslade Anderson, Philippe Durrant - Spectra Ensemble (Photo Lidia Crisafulli)

John Upperton made an engaging Harry Benn (the Boatswain of the title) whose campaign to make Mrs Waters his wife involves the fake burglary which is the engine of the plot. Upperton gave the annoying Benn enough roguish charm to make sure that his suit was convincing. Shaun Aquilina was suitably hang-dog as the down-at-heel ex-serviceman Ned Travers whom Benn engages to burgle Mrs Waters' inn. The results however are not what was expected.

Josephine Goddard was an engaging Mrs Waters, and there was a solidity and depth to Goddard's performance that disguised the fact that she was far younger than the character she was playing. I could have wished for her words to come over a bit better, Mrs Waters' bit solo scene was beautifully and engagingly performed but we needed more of the sense of the words for it to count. 

The relationship between Goddard's Mrs Waters and Aquilina's Travers developed in a believable and intriguing way. Neither character is completely certain, and their trajectory was not the conventional operatic one, simply fall into each others arms and walk into the sunset, but Goddard and Aquilina made you believe in the characters and drew you into the piece.

Beca Davies made a charming Mary Ann with Robert Winslade Anderson as the policeman, and the two were joined by Philippe Durrant for the chorus of drunken labourers that divides the two acts. 

Ethel Smyth: The Boatswain's Mate - Beca Davies, Josephine Goddard - Spectra Ensemble (Photo Lidia Crisafulli)
Ethel Smyth: The Boatswain's Mate - Beca Davies, Josephine Goddard - Spectra Ensemble (Photo Lidia Crisafulli)

There was much to enjoy here and the three instrumentalists worked hard. Smyth's score is always engaging, and the plot takes some distinctive turns. The piece occupies a territory somewhere between Gilbert & Sullivan and Britten's Albert Herring, and you sense that an opera like Smetana's The Bartered Bride might have been at the back of her mind. Certainly there are few works like it from the first half of the 20th century.

The opera was recorded in 2016 by Odaline de la Martinez on the Retrospect label, and the discs bring out the work's full charms [see my review] and it is about time that we heard the opera in a staged performance with Smyth's full orchestra. This was an enterprising performance, using just six singers and three instrumentalists, all in a large studio space, and the performers' engagement and enjoyment counted for a lot. It was a very hot night when we saw it, and by the end of the piece we were sweltering so it is a great credit to the performers that the managed to play as if the temperature was delightfully cool.











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