Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) deserves to be remembered for many things – in a year marking 100 years of (partial) women’s suffrage, as a suffragette – but her list of compositions includes six operas, of which the most significant is The Wreckers, first performed in Leipzig in 1906.
The libretto is set in an 18th-century Cornish village that survives through the heinous practice of wrecking passing ships. Two lovers – fisherman Mark and local preacher Pascoe’s wife Thirza – try to thwart the villagers, but are caught, tried and sentenced to death, perishing in a cave at high tide.
During her lifetime Smyth’s music was admired by such fellow composers as Tchaikovsky and championed by such discerning conductors as Thomas Beecham and Henry Wood. But it was only through determination that she gained performances, and it’s a long time since the work she regarded as her most important has received a major production.
With conductor Justin Lavender in charge of a secure musical performance, Arcadian Opera reveals the score’s considerable merits. Like her male English contemporaries Smyth’s language derives from German Romanticism, with Wagner a major influence on both plot and music, plus here and there a dash of English folksong. She also possessed an appreciable dramatic instinct.
In this traditional production by Ali Marshall with visuals benefiting from scene-setting projections by Toby Marshall, The Wreckers seizes and holds the attention so that by the end it is impossible not to acknowledge the work’s stature.
The cast give a good account of themselves, with Brian Smith Walters making a brave shot at the Wagnerian scale of the tenor writing and Jennifer Parker matching him note for note as Thirza. Steven East’s fanatical Pascoe and April Fredrick’s Avis head the alarming contingent of villagers, with the chorus’s vengeful hue and cry not far behind.