Sunday 12 March 2023

Late-Romantic atmosphere & emotional turmoil: Ethel Smyth's Der Wald gets a rare outing

Ethel Smyth: Der Wald
Ethel Smyth: Der Wald; Becca Marriott, Jacob Bettinelli, Louis Hurst, Lizzie Ryder, Martins Smaukstelis, Francesca Lauri, Panaretos Kyriatzidis; The Opera Makers at Holy Sepulchre Church
Friday 10 March 2023

A rare outing indeed for Smyth's second opera, 70 minutes of late-Romantic atmosphere and emotional turmoil, well caught in this small-scale performance

When the guns began to roar and the armies march at the beginning of World War I, it marked a significant divide in Ethel Smyth's career. German-trained, she had remained something of a German composer, performances of her work across Europe being far more common than in England. In 1914, she had major European performances of her operas planned, the two being Der Wald and Strandrecht (the German version of The Wreckers). Never again would she write large-scale romantic drama and her final three operas are smaller scale and firmly English.

Smyth's second opera, Der Wald had a distinguished history, it was premiered at the Königliches Opernhaus in Berlin in 1902, going on to have performances in London, New York and Strasbourg. It was the first opera by a woman to be presented at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (and remained so until 2016, when Kaija Saariaho's opera L'Amour de loin was first performed there). Since then, nothing.

Ethel Smyth's Der Wald received what was perhaps its first London performance since its UK premiere on Friday 10 March 2023 in an enterprising concert performance from The Opera Makers at Holy Sepulchre Church. Panaretos Kyriatzidis conducted, with Becca Marriott as Iolanthe, Jacob Bettinelli as Rudolf, Louis Hurst as the Pedlar, Lizzie Ryder as Röschen, Martins Smaukstelis as Heinrich and Masimba Ushe as Peter, accompanied by Francesca Lauri at the piano, and there was a large, voluntary chorus made up largely of music students.

In many ways, Der Wald made an odd fit with the Opera Makers ethos. Founded in 2019 by Becca Marriott and Panaretos Kyriatzidis, the company focuses on new interpretations of classics and projects in the pipeline include The Servant Mistress, a new take on Pergolesi's La serva padrona for children and what is promised as a radical take on Puccini's Turandot at the Grimeborn Festival this Summer. But, in a short introduction, Panaretos Kyriatzidis explained that the performance was organised out of frustration, that such a fantastic piece had been so totally neglected. 

The libretto of the opera was a joint creation of Henry Brewster and Smyth herself. It is quite slight, and takes what could easily be a folk-tale and turns it into an atmospheric single act. In style, it is as if late Brahms had decided to write an opera based on a story that might have suited Weber. The plot has distinctly Weber-ish themes. The setting is the forest in a small village, opening with a planned wedding and there is hunting, so all rather Der Freischutz-ish but then we have an innocent pair of lovers, Röschen and Heinrich, and an evil pair, Iolanthe and Rudolf, so very Euryanthe. And the libretto expects us to understand this, there is little background and little depth of character, it is all about atmosphere.

We begin with a sophisticated chorus for the forest spirits and this plunges us straight into a late romantic world, these forest spirits take no part in the story but return at the end, timeless against man's transience. The plot is simple, Röschen and Heinrich, a wood-cutter, are about to get married. The villagers celebrate by buying trinkets from the Pedlar. Heinrich has illegally slaughtered a deer for the feast and he and Röschen hide it in a disused well.

Iolanthe, currently the lover of Count Rudolf who owns the wood and the people in it, is an evil woman and perhaps a witch. She comes across Heinrich and desires him, he says no. Rudolf is furious that she is being untrue to him and wants revenge on Heinrich. Unfortunately, the deer is discovered and Rudolf has his means. Heinrich has a choice, join Iolanthe or be killed, he chooses the latter.

As I said, the piece is all about atmosphere. The basic plot fairly bats along and Smyth uses the full armoury to bring out the drama. There were solo moments but nothing like large-scale drama, we were on the verge of the sort of dialogue opera that Richard Strauss would popularise with Elektra and Salome. Yet, if you played the opera to me cold, I would have had difficulty placing it. When it came to the divide between the Wagner/Liszt camp and that of Brahms, Smyth was firmly in the latter, except we have few operas written in this later tradition.

To help us appreciate the opera, there was a spoken introduction to Smyth and her work from Christopher Wiley which admirably succinct whilst being entertaining and informative. Then Becca Marriott introduced the plot and the characters, and each singer was thoughtfully dressed so it was clear who was whom.

Becca Marriott really sank her teeth into the role of Iolanthe, relishing what Smyth had given her and also making sure that we understood the backdrop to the character. As her lover, Rudolf, Jacob Bettinelli was admirable as a man under the sway of an evil woman, though the character is a little too underdeveloped. Lizzie Ryder made a charming Röschen bringing out the naivety and having both the heft and virtuosity required, whilst Martins Smaukstelis made an engagingly naive hero (Heinrich is definitely in the 'thick but cute' operatic tradition). Masimba Ushe provided strong support as Röschen's father with Louis Hurst having great fun in the character role of the pedlar.

Francesca Lauri provided fine support at what was a rather under-par piano, and conjured a suggestion of the romantic atmosphere from the orchestra. The chorus was in strong form, this does not sound like an easy sing, and having over 40 singers gave a vibrancy to the sound. Lina DeWachter and  Adam Brown had step-out roles as the young boy and the first huntsman.

This was an impressive achievement, with all of the singers well into their roles, giving us Smyth and Brewster's drama with amazing confidence. We came away with a clear feeling for the strong late-romantic atmosphere of the piece and I came to agree with Kyriatzidis in wondering why we have not heard it before. The good news is that a recording is in the works [see my interview with conductor John Andrews]

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