Wednesday 20 September 2023

Why the wait? Ethel Smyth's first major success, Der Wald, finally receives its premiere recording in a terrific account from John Andrews and BBC Symphony Orchestra

Ethel Smyth: Der Wald; Natalya Romaniw, Claire Barnett-Jones, Robert Murray, Andrew Shaw, Morgan Pearse, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra, conductor John Andrews; Resonus Classics
Ethel Smyth: Der Wald; Natalya Romaniw, Claire Barnett-Jones, Robert Murray, Andrew Shaw, Morgan Pearse, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra, conductor John Andrews; Resonus Classics

Ethel Smyth's first major success receives its premiere recording, revealing a striking piece of late-Romanticism in a terrific and wonderfully empathetic 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). Whilst she had already started work on her lighter opera, The Boatswain's Mate, you do wonder what Smyth's career would have been like without the interruption of war. Never again would she write large-scale romantic drama and her final three operas are smaller scale and firmly English, and it is perhaps also worth bearing in mind that when the war concluded, Smyth was already 60.

Earlier this year, The Opera Makers give Der Wald it's first London outing since its UK premiere (in 1902) in a small-scale performance [see my review]. Now the work's full romantic atmosphere can be appreciated in a new recording on Resonus Classics from John Andrews, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers on Resonus Classics with Natalya Romaniw, Claire Barnett-Jones, Robert Murray, Andrew Shore and Morgan Pearse on a recording supported by the Ambache Charitable Trust. The work's libretto, by Smyth and her friend (and sometime lover) Henry (HB) Brewster, was written in German, but is here given in English in the translation, I presume, that Smyth had done for the work's triumphant UK premiere at Covent Garden in 1902.

The opera begins and ends in the forest, atmospheric choral scenes full of Romantic atmosphere. The idea is that the emotional turmoil of the opera's main scenes are set within the longer time-frame of the wood itself, barely disturbing a thing. The opera proper opens with Weber-ish wedding celebrations, and there is something distinctly Weber-ish about the plot with a disturbing figure (here Prince Rudolf's mistress Iolanthe) trying to seduce the hero, here Heinrich. In both Der Freischütz and Der Wald, the hero transgresses, here he kills a deer and hides it. But Smyth and Brewster create a more concentrated work, pregnant with romantic atmosphere. Sometimes details are barely sketched in, you wish for a bit more Iolanthe for instance, but the work's admirable focus is to its great advantage.

We begin with the gorgeous prelude where the romantic orchestral atmosphere is joined by the chorus. For all Smyth's German sensibilities, I rather felt Elgarian overtones to this as well (or perhaps given the recent resurgence of Parry's choral music, we should think about his influence). The scene transforms (cue music that makes you aware that Smyth indeed knew Tchaikovsky) to a peasant village in the forest as they celebrate the forthcoming nuptials of Röschen (Natalya Romaniw) and Heinrich (Robert Murray). This scene is pure Weber-ish opera, especially with the characterful Pedlar of Andrew Shore. In these first scenes, Romaniw makes quite dramatic impact and we sense that the role has a way to go from the simple village girl.

Throughout the piece the forest is a source of anxiety and fascination for the peasants, so that horn calls from Iolanthe (Claire Barnett-Jones) raise a heightened sense of danger. Throughout, the orchestra plays quite a large part, conjuring atmosphere and more. When Heinrich finally arrives, we have had plenty of scene setting and atmosphere creating.

Robert Murray is wonderfully bright and engaging as Heinrich, he and Romaniw make a delightful couple yet both are more strongly drawn, more vividly given than might have been expected. Their first scene together is, however, hardly a straightforward love duet, Heinrich narrates seeing the King of the forest, and then they hide the deer that Heinrich has illicitly killed. The scene contrasts Heinrich's heroic confidence with Röschen's forebodings. But it builds, orchestrally and vocally into a real climax, but one that is counterpointed at the end by the voices of the distant wood spirits commenting how soon things pass!

With Röschen out the way in her cottage, Heinrich comes to the attention of Iolanthe (Claire Barnett-Jones) whom the villagers rate a witch. Handsome Heinrich catches her eye and she tries to tempt him, ultimately unsuccessfully. Barnett-Jones makes a wonderfully vivid Iolanthe, we are given little background to her so Barnett-Jones is free to create this rather dramatic siren, clearly taken with the rather dull but handsome huntsman. In the end he reiterates his commitment to his beloved and gets that back end of Iolanthe's tongue (Barnett-Jones in terrific form, here).

The local landowner, Rudolf (Morgan Pearse) proves rather a sad sap, desperate to continue intercourse with Iolanthe even though she seems to have lost interest. Pearse makes much of Rudolf's small role, singing his desperation with character and style. 

The Pedlar reappears, having never quite disappeared and he has spent rather a lot of time as something of a peeping tom. The characterful scene where he is taunted by the huntsmen goes in a different line when the well lid is lifted and they find the body of the deer hidden by Heinrich . From this point, things go awry pretty quickly, and you can appreciate Smyth and (particularly) Brewster's skill in keeping our interest and not making too much of things.

Morgan Pearse has a terrific moment of vengeance as Rudolf, is it was his deer that was killed, but it is Claire Barnett-Jones' Iolanthe who has the triumph. The final scene is a terrific piece of concentrated drama with Barnett-Jones, Romaniw and Murray. Murray's Heinrich refuses to bow to Iolanthe and do her will, and Barnett-Jones makes Iolanthe wonderfully implacable, toying with Romaniw's Röschen but we end with Murray's terrific vow that love is the most important thing, and Romaniw joins him in a short but vivid apotheosis 'Love has the victory, love and death, love and death. Sacred forest, take thine own', making it clear why the role needs a singer with such terrific dramatic clout.

The recording uses the translation that Smyth provided for the UK premiere; you feel that a sympathetic hand needs to modernise it somewhat. It is to the cast's credit that they make such Gilbert-ish lines as 'Ah me! Well a-day! Perchance 'twas unwise to refuse my favours' seem completely natural. This libretto, like the similar English version of The Wreckers, give us a poor idea of Brewster's skills as librettist.

The cast are uniformly excellent, showing commitment to the drama and sympathy with Smyth's style. As well as the major named roles, the smaller ones are well taken too with Matthew Brook as a sympathetic Peter, Rebecca Lea as a youth and Andrew Rupp as a huntsman.

The BBC Singers don't have a massive role, but it is an important one and I cannot imagine the opening and closing chorus of wood spirits being more beautifully expressively sung, bringing out all those Elgarian hints.

John Andrews and the BBC Symphony Orchestra are on terrific form. The orchestra already has form with Smyth, having performed and recorded her Mass and here they hit gold again and casting a lovely late-romantic glow over the work. Yes there are influences galore that we can think of; the opera is pure Weber meets Wagner. But whilst Smyth picked bits from the sorcerer of Bayreuth, she did not swallow him wholeheartedly. Her musico-social circles in Germany involved the Mendelssohn/Hensel and Schumann families with Brahms an admired genius (she was less keen on the man himself). This comes over in the music. With its concentrated form, and less need to create long operatic structures, the piece feels much more itself than The Wreckers where some of the earlier scenes can seem too reliant on existing operatic models. 

Now all we need is for the work to have a full staging. How about a short Iolanthe season - Smyth's Der Wald (1902), Gilbert & Sullivan's Iolanthe (1882) and Tchaikovsky's Iolanta (1892).

Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) - Der Wald [66:21] (1902)
Röschen - Natalya Romaniw
Heinrich - Robert Murray
Iolanthe - Claire Barnett-Jones
Pedlar - Andrew Shore
Rudolf - Morgan Pearse
Peter - Matthew Brook
Youth - Rebecca Lea
Huntsman - Andrew Rupp
BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Orchestra
John Andrews (conductor)
Recorded in Studio 1, BBC Maida Vale Studios, London, 10-12 January 2023

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