The Wreckers (opera)

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The Wreckers is an opera in three acts, composed by Dame Ethel Smyth to a libretto in French by Henry Brewster. After spending considerable energy in trying to get the work performed in French, the first performance took place in a German translation by John Bernhoff, under the title of Strandrecht, at the Neues Theater, Leipzig on 11 November 1906. Symth persisted in her attempts to see it staged elsewhere, but it was not until the conductor Thomas Beecham championed the work that a complete, staged performance was achieved in England in 1909.

Describing the opera in the New Grove Dictionary, Stephen Banfield notes "Its greatest strength is in its dramatic strategy, strikingly prophetic of (Britten's) Peter Grimes in details such as the offstage church service set against the foreground confontation in Act 1."[1] However, Amanda Holden makes the point that, musically, Smyth is "no Wagnerite, she makes use of his motivic technique, while the texture, orchestration, and even some of the music's dramatic density, show knowledge of the works of Richard Strauss ... but it also slips too readily into operatic convention."[2]

Composition history[edit]

Old tales of Cornish villages where, on stormy nights, the inhabitants lured passing sailing ships onto to the rugged Atlantic coast were commonplace in the nineteenth century. The cargoes plundered were regarded as legitimate reward for the hardships endured in this isolated and barren part of the country.

Therefore, when looking for a suitable theme for her third opera, it is little wonder that Smyth's thoughts should turn to this dramatic, yet romantic subject. It was after a taking a walking tour in Cornwall in 1886 that the idea came to her and, for several years, Smyth visited places where shipwrecks were said to have been engineered and interviewing anyone with evidence or memories of the wreckers. [3] Fuller quotes from Smyth's memoirs about the pull of the subject matter:

Ever since those days I had been haunted by impressions of that strange world of more than a hundred years ago; the plundering of ships lured on to the rocks by the falsification or extinction of the coast lights; the relentless murder of their crews; and with it all the ingrained religiosity of the Celtic population of that barren promontory.[4]

Eventually she passed her notes on to Henry Brewster, a close personal friend and writer, to prepare the libretto. Although an American by birth, he had been brought up in France and it was agreed that libretto should be in French, partly because Brewster was happier working in French, but also it was felt that there was a more realistic chance of the work being produced in France or Belgium than in England.[5]

Smyth encountered considerable difficulty in getting this work published; her persistence in doing so was very commendable, notes Charles Reid: "For five years Ethel Smyth, wearing mannish tweeds and an assertively cocked felt hat, had been striding about Europe, cigar in mouth, trying to sell her opera The Wreckers to timorous or stubborn impresarios."[6]

Performance history[edit]

Unfortunately all attempts to have the opera premiered in the French-speaking world came to nothing, and Smyth was forced to fall back on personal contacts in Leipzig, where she had studied, to get the work performed in an inferior German translation. Severe cuts were insisted on by the conductor, particularly in the third act, which Smyth felt was turned into an "incomprehensible jumble".[5] Despite a successful first night (the opera received 16 curtain calls)[5] and general critical approval, Smyth immediately withdrew the opera and took it to Prague where she hoped for a more sympathetic production. Regrettably the opera fared even worse than at its first performance, and a disappointed Smyth returned to England.

With Beecham's support, the opera was given at Her Majesty's Theatre on 22 June 1909. Smyth was actually upset at the way Beecham conducted the rehearsals themselves, which were crammed into 10 days and nights.[7] Beecham also included The Wreckers in his first Covent Garden season in 1910. In 1907 Gustav Mahler was considering the opera for a production at the Vienna State Opera, which would have been a very prestigious première for Smyth. Smyth said of Mahler, "He was far and away the finest conductor I ever knew, with the most all-embracing musical instinct, and it is one of the small tragedies of my life that just when he was considering The Wreckers at Vienna they drove him from office." [8]

Thereafter performances have been occasional, at best. Rare stage performances have taken place in England since 1939, but The Wreckers was performed by Duchy Opera at the Hall for Cornwall in 2006 to mark the opera's centenary and its first performance in Cornwall. This production was conducted by Paul Drayton and directed by David Sulkin. The libretto for this production was adapted by Amanda Holden. A concert performance was included in the Proms in 1994. It was most recently performed in concert performance by the American Symphony Orchestra in September 2007, marking its United States premiere.[3]

Roles[edit]

Role Voice type Premiere cast,
11 November 1906
(Conductor: - Hagel)
Pascoe, the local preacher Baritone
Thirza, his wife Mezzo soprano
Lawrence, the Lighthouse keeper Baritone
Mark, a young fisherman Tenor
Avis, Lawrence's daughter Soprano
Chorus: villagers and fishermen

Synopsis[edit]

Act 1[edit]

A Cornish fishing village. Sunday evening

On their way to chapel, villagers are drinking outside the tavern. Pascoe, the lay preacher, arrives and chastises them for taking alcohol on the Sabbath. He declares that this is why the Lord has stopped sending them ships to plunder. Lawrence, the lighthouse keeper, has another explanation: he has seen beacons burning on the cliffs and is certain someone is warning ships of the danger. The villagers vow to find the traitor in their midst and destroy him. Mark, one of the younger fishermen, has been courting Avis, who is the daughter of the lighthouse keeper. His affections however, have now turned towards Thirza, the young wife of Pascoe. Unaware that Avis is spying on him, he serenades his new love while the other villagers are in the chapel, and to Avis's jealous fury it is clear that his amorous feelings for Thirza are fully returned. The villagers leave the chapel inspired by Pascoe's fiery sermon to commit further bloody acts of plunder. The preacher upbraids his wife for not attending the service, but Thirza retorts that she can no longer endure life in the village and the merciless ways of the wreckers. Pascoe is left alone with his thoughts. A storm is brewing and a ship is being drawn onto the rocks. Excitedly, the men of the village anticipate the rich pickings soon coming their way. To everyone's amazement Avis returns and denounces Pascoe as the traitor who has been warning the ships of danger. The men agree to keep a close watch on the preacher as they begin their preparations for the grim work ahead.

Act 2[edit]

A desolate seashore at the base of the cliffs

Mark is collecting flotsam and driftwood. He is in fact the one responsible for the warning beacons. Just as he is about to set light to his bonfire using the flame of his torch he hears Thirza calling. She hurries to his side and warns him that other villagers are close by and that if he lights the fire they will see the flames and come to trap him. The lovers embrace. At first Mark is intent on lighting his beacon, but when Thirza declares her love for him he stops, realizing he is putting her in danger as well as himself. Mark begs her to leave Pascoe and run away with him. She is reluctant at first, but gradually yields to his pleading. Triumphantly together they seize the torch and ignite the bonfire. Pascoe arrives just in time to see the lovers making their escape. For a moment he sees his wife's face in the moonlight and in a state of anguish collapses on the beach. He is still unconscious when Avis and the men from the village arrive. Finding Pascoe near the beacon they are certain that he is the traitor.

Act 3[edit]

The interior of a large cave

An impromptu court has been convened and Lawrence has appointed himself as prosecutor since he was one of the men who discovered Pascoe, apparently red-handed. Pascoe refuses to acknowledge the court and ignores their questions. Avis declares that he is the victim of witchcraft, as he is clearly still under the spell of his young wife, Thirza.

The evidence seems clear. The crowd howl for Pascoe's death, but at that moment Mark bursts into their midst and confesses that he was the one who betrayed them. Thirza also steps forward to acknowledge her share of the guilt. Avis tries to save Mark by claiming he spent the night with her, but the lovers are determined to meet their fate together.

The verdict is inevitable. The lovers are to be left chained as the incoming tide gradually fills the cave. Once more Pascoe begs Thirza to repent, but she again rejects him, preferring to die with Mark. The villagers leave as the waters begin to rise and ecstatically the lovers face death in each other's arms.

Recordings[edit]

References[edit]

Notes

  1. ^ Banfield, p. 1181
  2. ^ Holden, p. 863
  3. ^ a b Sophie Fuller, "The Wreckers (1904)" on americansymphony.org. Retrieved 1 March 2013
  4. ^ Fuller quoting Smyth on the American Symphony Orchestra website at the time of that orchestra's performance in 2007
  5. ^ a b c Booklet accompanying Conifer Classics' recording
  6. ^ Reid, p. ?
  7. ^ Kathleen Abromeit, "Ethel Smyth, The Wreckers, and Sir Thomas Beecham", The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 73, No. 2, pp. 196–211, 1989
  8. ^ Smyth, pp. 173–174, in Norman Lebrecht, "Ethel Smyth", Mahler Remembered, London: Faber and Faber 1987, p. 45

Cited sources

  • Banfield, Stephen, "Wreckers, The", in Stanley Sadie, (Ed.), The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Vol. Four. London: MacMillan Publishers, Inc. 1998 ISBN 0-333-73432-7 ISBN 1-56159-228-5
  • Holden, Amanda (Ed.), The New Penguin Opera Guide, New York: Penguin Putnam, 2001. ISBN 0-14-029312-4
  • Reid, Charles, Thomas Beecham: An Independent Biography, New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1962. ISBN 0-575-01151-3 ISBN 0-575-01151-3
  • Smyth Ethel, Impressions That Remained, London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1923, Vol. 2., pp. 173–174,

Other sources

  • Anderson, Gwen, Ethyl Smyth, London: Cecil Woolf, 1997. ISBN 1-897967-90-X ISBN 1-897967-90-X
  • Harewood, Earl of and Antony Pattie, (Eds.) The New Kobbe's Opera Book London: Ebury Press, 1997. ISBN 0-09-181410-3
  • St John, Christopher, Ethel Smyth: a Biography. London: Longmans, Green, 1959.