Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Smyth's The Wreckers -- New, at 101

Dame Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers had its U.S. premiere in concert last Sunday at Avery Fisher Hall, thanks to the American Symphony Orchestra and the enduring passion for neglected late romantic scores of its director, Leon Botstein. The world premiere of the opera took place in Leipzig and Prague in 1906, and though not without its champions, it has largely faded from view.

Smyth had a lot of cards stacked against her -- she was a woman when no major opera had ever been composed by one (is this still true?), and English when no English-born composer had produced an unquestioned operatic masterpiece since Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. (Sullivan might have -- but his Ivanhoe and The Golden Legend suggest that light opera was not just his delight, it was also the locus of his genius.) Smyth, like Sullivan, had studied in Germany, and her second opera, Der Wald, composed to a German libretto, had (and still has) the honor of being the first and only opera composed by a woman ever to play the Met. Everyone was charmed by her ladylike demeanor (she came of good family), but the second half of the double bill -- Il Trovatore -- (there were no unions then, remember) -- swept every shred of Der Wald out of everybody's ears.

The Wreckers is set in her native England and she didn't write the libretto this time -- but the story was her idea; she did not work from a previous dramatic form, and that shows. The drama of her story is minimal, the characters clich├ęd, their emotions a bit too simple. They do not interest us; they do not promise more than we've already heard. The story concerns a congregation of starving fisherfolk in Cornwall who, led by their pastor, misconstrue some of the bloodier passages of the Bible to justify lighting, or putting out, coastal warning lights so that ships will be wrecked, their crews slaughtered and the town will prosper on the booty. “Probably not much tourism in that town,” someone muttered. Nowadays, of course, there probably is: tales of the Wreckers of old quaintly embossed on every tchotchke and T-shirt.

Botstein suggests that the story's attitude towards wrongheaded heterodox Christianity may make the piece more appealing nowadays, and one may also note that the heroine is denounced as a witch when convicted of thwarting the town's bloodthirsty plans -- I think what we have here is a c.1900 sentimental feminist's feelings for the witches of old. British music, women's creativity and suffrage were not the only causes ahead of -- but very much of -- her time that Smyth espoused.

To my own surprise -- I had never heard any of Smyth's music -- it was a very pleasurable afternoon. The music was at once quasi-Wagnerian and elegantly deployed (as suits a German-trained musician of the time), and tunefully old-fashioned (typical of Brits of the time). Botstein has come up with far less appealing works in his devoted endeavors -- as well as better ones, like last spring's Die Ferne Klang. The vocal lines were grateful, and the choral numbers especially effective.

The opera attempts to twine assorted love affairs into the ethical question of whether or not unknown sailors are fair game for starving coastal peasants. The Pastor and his congregation (especially bloodthirsty Avis, the fun part) thinks they are, but Thirza, the Pastor's young wife, hopes to save the sailors. Her partner in this secret deed is Mark, who falls in love with her -- which is dangerous, as Avis loves Mark and soon uncovers the details. The Pastor is unable to save them but forfeits his leadership, and the townsfolk bind Mark and Thirza in a cave as the tide comes in. This sounds more thrilling than it is: the drama is almost by-the-numbers: have we had a hymn? must be time for a folk song -- tenderly echoed by the other participant in adultery. The characters had attractive lines to sing, and obvious themes to represent, but they never came to anything like life.

Smyth lacked the knack of making fable real by deepening individual psyches – a gift Verdi, Wagner, Strauss and Britten possessed in spades, a reason their dramas ever fascinate. Even the hoariest tale, set to melody by any one of these four masters, reveals intriguing depths, individuality in short: Gilda is an ingenue, but not just an ingenue -- her spunk, the fervor behind her melody, makes us curious about her back story and her fate. Smyth’s tunes and the bare-bones libretto did not give one much notion of unspoken thoughts glimmering beneath the too-obvious surface of what people were saying, and the words themselves were far from eloquent. Smyth's inability to make cardboard human was far from unique -- most of her male contemporaries (even Richard Strauss in his first two operas) were, like her, using Wagnerian techniques and "mythic" material with similar lack of originality or theatricality. Smyth was, unfortunately, one of the boys killing time between the arrival of giants.

This was, in fact, the most interesting aspect of the event: pondering why Smyth's opera, with all its character clash, its big burning (okay, drowning) issues, its tunefulness, its steady rise to climax, remained dead on the page, without subtlety or frisson. These people have no secrets from us; we know them, and we know them in twenty seconds. There are no surprises here, and there are no questions: Did Thyrza and Mark actually, you know, do it? Who cares? (They've been debating for 220 years whether Don Giovanni had his way with Donna Anna just before curtain rise, and there's no clear answer yet. But in any good Giovanni, we still wonder.) The Wreckers is a drama without dramatics. Inventing people was not Smyth's gift.

The powerful roles are for the women – the sole sign that a lesbian (okay; bisexual woman) wrote this. The saintly Thirza, a contralto for a change, gives her life to save unknown sailors -- but she never seems to think about this, or to consider how her relationship with a man other than her husband looks to that husband and the rest of the town. Avis, the soprano, rouses the villagers against the man who has left her, against Thirza who has captivated him, and even Thirza’s husband. She seems concerned for the survival of the community's quaint customs, but it's really lust and jealousy that drive her -- and she rather wins us over by not taking any guff from her father or any other man. In a more recent opera, Avis's role would be just one long shriek, but Smyth, brighter than the post-World War II opera composers, gave her some charming music.

On Sunday, Ellie Dehn, whose name has been gathering comment on the circuit, had great fun as Avis and never seemed shrill or in any vocal trouble, while Thirza was handled gratefully by the rising mezzo Kate Aldrich. Richard Cox, after a slow start, sang an amiable sea ballad as Mark and a Tristan-esque (but not so brutal as that) dying duet with Thirza. Louis Otey was effective as the Pastor, Andrew Schroeder more than that as Avis's disappointed father (he kicks her out when he realizes what an unprincipled slut she is), Deborah Domanski charming in the trouser role of the boy Avis toys with the better to pursue Mark, and Ryan MacPherson better than promising as another fisherman. The orchestra and chorus made much of the roiling, post-Hollander sea pictures (a bit tame when one thinks of what Vaughn Williams and Britten were to do with British musical sea painting), and the orchestra had many intriguing touches to raise Smyth's nonexistent reputation.