Concert Review: Ethel Smyth's The Wreckers at the Proms

Concert Review: Ethel Smyth's The Wreckers at the Proms
Photo © Chris Christodoulou

Smyth The Wreckers (semi-staged, sung in French) Cast; The Glyndebourne Chorus; London Philharmonic Orchestra / Robin Ticciati (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, 24.07.2022


Pasko – Philip Horst

Avis – Lauren Fagan

Thurza – Karis Tucker

Marc – Rodrigo Porras Garulo

Jacquet – Marta Fontanals-Sommons

Laurent – James Rutherford

Harvey – Donovan Singletary

Tallan – Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts


Staging – Donna Stirrup, based on the Glyndebourne production directed by Melly Still

Ethel Smyth saw The Wreckers as her magnum opus. Her ‘Cornish drama in three acts’ was originally written in French to a libretto by Henry Brewster, and this was the first Proms performance of the piece in that version; it was given in English in the 1984 Proms with the BBC Philharmonic and Huddersfield Choral Society conducted by Odeline de la Martínez, and excerpts from the opera were once Proms staples. With this performance of The Wreckers, one hopes for a renaissance of interest in Ethel Smyth – and one notes with satisfaction that her Concerto for Violin and Horn was performed the very next day (July 25) - a piece with a very different demeanour, full of wit in the finale  and with some beautiful, radiant harmonies in the slow movement (and some really tricky low writing for the horn soloist as part of the deal).

Transferred over from Glyndebourne, The Wreckers was quite an immersive experience, which used the spaces of the RAH well – even before the first note was struck, we had the sounds of wind and waves subtly echoing around the auditorium; thunder struck immediately before the orchestra launched into its stormy Overture. Robin Ticciati’s attention to detail shone here, as throughout the whole (long) evening. Even the Overture had the most amazing reach, from folksong-like melody to dancing solo violin and the most magical harp arabesques, right next to a noble (nobilmente?) tune that beathed ever-so-naturally in Ticciati’s phasing. A little touch worth remarking on – Ticciati did not enter to applause for the second act, instead he merely slipped in after the tuning, as if not to interrupt the flow of the opera, as if to merely take up what was left pre-interval. And how impressive the portrait of the sea that opens that second act was (complete with projections at the back).

Robin Ticciata, photo © Chris Christodoulou

Smyth’s musical language is completely consistent over the work’s extended duration; it really does feel as if one is in the presence of a masterpiece. Influences can of course be found – passages in the last act have a whiff of Wagner about them, for instance, but Smyth’s language is its own. Re-listening to the score via broadcast, it was Havergal Brian (1876-1972 (I am) that came to mind from time to time (I am suggesting impressions and parallels here, not necessarily influences here).

One can easily point to points of contact between this and Peter Grimes in the insularity of a community that has its own views and sense of justice. In Smyth’s opera, there is something grim, even vaguely satanic, in a n 18th century village that deliberately sets out to cause shipwrecks and to feed food and money off the carnage. Certainly the idea that praying to a Christian God for others’ demise might raise some hackles; interesting that when the preacher Pasko arrives he rails against his congregation for drinking on the Sabbath (and not, as one might think in the normal run of things, for praying for storms and others’ disasters).

Lit beacons have been luring ships away from the rocks; there is someone who betrays the ‘faith’ in their midst. The Pasko’s wife, Thurza, is herself an outsider who refuses to pray. A love story reaches its death knell between Avis and her beloved Marc, and Avis swears revenge. Interestingly, in this inverted place, it is the ‘pagan’ Thurza, the outcast, who realises what is wrong, but her calls fall on deaf ears.

The identity of the traitor who lights the fires fuels much of the drama, with Avis convincing the throng that Pasko is guilty, under Thurza’s thrall. In Act 2, we meet Avis manipulating Jacquet (a trouser role) via a kiss; so enamoured are they that miss the real perpetrator, Marc, coming to light the misleading beacons. We see the two sets of lovers in this central act, as Marc and Thurza celebrate their love, coloured by the knowledge that the villagers a baying for blood. Both Marc and Thurza light the beacon, but leave evidence (a scarf, found by Pasko).

The final act features a court hosted by the villagers in a cave beneath the ocean. Pasko stands accused; only at the last moment does Marc reveal his part (although Avis tries to convince the court Marc was with her all night). The villagers condemn Marc and Thurza, who die in a kind of Liebestod-by-water; they die in each other's arms, the ocean washing over them.

Smyth’s The Wreckers is a strong score, and consistently so. It needs a strong cast to work with Ticciati’s sense of detail, and perhaps most of all it needs a strong chorus. The Glyndebourne Chorus is one of the finest, and be they dancing or speaking as one as a collective, elemental power, a veritable wall of sound (and yet still layered), the result was awe-inspiring. As Pasko the preacher, Philip Horst was dramatically convincing, rigid of thought and, in performance terms, huge of voice. Here was someone absolutely entrenched in their belief system. The other real star of the evening was soprano Lauren Fagan as Avis, her bright voice negotiating Smyth’s demands as if this were core repertoire. Intriguingly, Smyth even gives her a Carmen-indebted song at one point (just before 30 minutes into the Radio 3 broadcast, where one can hear the one person who shouted ‘bravo’ at the top of his voice immediately thereafter); Fagan projected the infinite energy of this character to perfection.

Lauren Fagan as Avis, photo © Chris Christodoulou

Philip Horst as Pasko, photo © Chris Christodoulou

Wonderful to see mezzo Marta Fontanals-Simmons as Jacquet, inhabiting her character’s male-dom and in fine voice; tenor Rodrigo Porras Garulo was a strong Marc, but perhaps it was the Thurza, mezzo Karis Tucker, who outshone him in this act. Nevertheless, their affirmation of their love was beautiful, and so easy to get caught up in, and Porras Garulo seemed to gain in strength, reaching his best towards the end.

Karis Tucker as Thurza, phot © Chris Christodoulou

With the court set up at the side of the stage and with a noose as a vital part of the drama, the work’s conclusion is not for the faint-hearted; a slow, circular processional by the chorus was particularly chilling, perhaps invoking parallels with mob thought in The Wicker Man. Donna Stirrup’s adapted staging worked spectacularly well in the Albert Hall (unfortunately I don’t have the Glyndebourne original to compare it with), but it was Ticciati, surely, who was responsible for the inexorable move towards the luminous final love duet.

It has been a remarkable season so far, what with that Verdi Requiem at the start and now this. All of the vocal parts were well taken – and lovely to see James Rutherford in fine voice as Laurent. Do try to hear this on BBC Sounds if you can: Smyth’s voice is unique, and as compelling as her dramatic sense.

Ethel Smyth The Wreckers (CD)Ethel Smyth Concerto for Violin and Horn