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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Opera Review: Love on the Rocks

Ethyl Smyth's The Wreckers rises from the vasty deep.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
(This article is presented in collaboration with our friends at OperaPulse.)
Wrecking crew: (L-r) Katharine Goeldner, Sky Ingram, Michael Mayes, Neal Cooper and Kendra Broom 
in rehearsal for Dame Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers.
Photo by Stephanie Berger © 2015 Bard SummerScape.
Each summer, it is the business of the Bard SummerScape Festival to present an opera that for whatever reason has fallen far from the fringes of the standard repertory. On Friday night, artistic director and Bard College president) Leon Botstein led the first fully staged performance of The Wreckers the 1907 opera by Dame Ethyl Smyth. (The work was first performed in the U.S. by the American Symphony Orchestra under Dr. Botstein at Carnegie Hall in 2007.) This was the first of five scheduled performances this month at the Fisher Center, the Frank Gehry-designed concert hall on the Bard campus that is SummerScape's headquarters.

This production of The Wreckers (directed by Thaddeus Strassberger) may serve as a key moment of redemption for Smyth. She remains neglected, despite being the only female composer to have one of her operas (Der Wald) performed on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. Under Dr. Botstein’s leadership, the players of the American Symphony Orchestra revealed this to be an interesting score combining Wagnerian chromaticism with a style of heavy choral writing that is distinctly English.

Like Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes (which followed 40 years later) the plot of The Wreckers centers on a small British coastal village troubled by a non-conformist. In this case the outsider is Mark, a fisherman who disagrees with the village's practice of dousing their coastal light and forcing ships to wreck themselves on the rocks of the Cornwall coast. Mark interferes with this piratical practice (and thus the local economy) by lighting nightly beacon fires on the cliffs, and thus conjuring up a host of images related to the second act of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.

The show was anchored by tenor Neal Cooper as Mark. Mr. Cooper sang with a fine heavyweight tenor, punching through the choral ensembles and thick orchestration and diving headlong into the massive Act II soliloquy and monologue that anchors the entire opera. He was matched by mezzo Katherine Goeldner as Tirza, Mark's lover and the wife of Pascoe, the local minister. The two singers shared an ardent duet in Act II (more shades of Tristan) before being condemned to drown together in the Act III finale in a cave that slowly filled with the rising tide.

The key role of Pascoe, the village minister (who endorses the actions of the townsfolk) was sung by Louis Otey, a potent bass with dramatic range and a powerful stage presence. He was at his most moving in the big Act I duet with Tirza (he plays the cuckold to the lovers) and in the Act III trial scene where he was accused of being the clifftop arsonist. As his accuser Avis, soprano Sky Ingram turned a scenery-chewing role into a star turn, singing the punishing high notes with a searing upper register that stopped just short of a scream. The small crucial roles of Lawrence the lighthouse-keeper (the fine bass Michael Mayes) and Jack (a travesti role played by Kendra Bloom) added further seasoning to this already salty drama.

What's frightening about The Wreckers (the libretto, originally in French but sung here in English, is by Henry Brewster who worked closely with Smyth) is the townies' sincere belief that their acts of piracy and plunder are condoned by God. In their eyes, the shipwrecks are merely the Lord's way of being bountiful, and the murder of passengers and crew (shown in with graphic violence in the Act I prelude) is an act of divine mercy. It's no coincidence that the set is dominated by a ship's mast in Act I, a kind of crude crucifix that represents the faith of these pious pirates.

Despite having to move and act on a set built from a seemingly haphazard pile of shipping crates, the chorus was a central part of this drama. Like the villagers in Peter Grimes they move and think as a unit, quick to condemn and destroy those perceived as outside their salvage economy. The Bard Festival Chorus were simply outstanding, working with the orchestra as a tight unit, offering up prayers for nautical destruction and blithely sacrificing those who dared to disagree in the opera's chilling finale. This was powerful stuff, and a performance that was a strong argument for salvaging this opera on a more frequent basis.

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