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The Wreckers (opera)

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The Wreckers
Opera by Ethel Smyth
Ethel Smyth, no later than 1903
  • Ethel Smyth
  • Henry Bennet Brewster
11 November 1906 (1906-11-11)
Neues Theater, Leipzig (in German)

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. Smyth 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 with funding support from her friend Mary Dodge.[1]

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 confrontation in Act 1."[2] 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."[3]

Composition history[edit]

Old tales of Cornish villages where, on stormy nights, the inhabitants lured passing sailing ships onto 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. [4] 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.[5]

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 the 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.[6]

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."[7]

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 conductor Richard Hagel, particularly in the third act, which Smyth felt was turned into an "incomprehensible jumble".[6] The opera had a very successful opening night, receiving 16 curtain calls[6] and general critical approval. But when the conductor refused to restore the cut material "Smyth then took the extraordinary step of marching into the orchestra pit, removing all the parts and the full score... making further performances in Leipzig impossible."[4] She took the performance materials to Prague, where she hoped for a more sympathetic production, but "the under-rehearsed performances there were a disaster."[4]

Back in England, with Beecham's support, the opera was given at His Majesty's Theatre on 22 June 1909 with Clementine de Vere Sapio as Thirza, John Coates as Mark, Arthur Winckworth as Pascoe, Lewis James as Lawrence, and Elizabeth Amsden as Avis.[8] Smyth was upset at the way Beecham conducted the rehearsals themselves, which were crammed into 10 days and nights.[9] 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."[10]

Thereafter performances have been occasional, at best. Rare stage performances have taken place in England since 1939. The seminal performance in modern times was a semi-staged performance at the BBC Proms on 31 July 1994, with Anne-Marie Owens as Thirza, Justin Lavender as Mark, Peter Sidhom as Pascoe, David Wilson-Johnson as Lawrence, Judith Howarth as Avis, Anthony Roden as Tallan, Brian Bannatyne-Scott as the Man, and Annemarie Sand as Jack, together with the Huddersfield Choral Society (chorus-master: Jonathan Grieves-Smith) and the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by pioneering Smyth interpreter Odaline de la Martinez. Presented to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the composer's death in 1944, this performance laid the foundations for subsequent performances, in particular leading to a production by Arcadian Opera in 2018 conducted by Lavender. It was recorded live at the Royal Albert Hall and released on the Conifer Classics label as a double CD in 1994, subsequently re-released by Retrospect Opera in 2018.[11]

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 in a reduced orchestration by Tony Burke. The production was conducted by Paul Drayton and directed by David Sulkin. The libretto for this production was adapted by Amanda Holden. It was given at the Stadttheater Gießen in May 2007 under its German title 'Strandräuber', conducted by Carlos Spierer, and it also received a concert performance by the American Symphony Orchestra in September 2007, marking its United States premiere. Bard Summerscape produced the opera to critical acclaim[12] in a full-scale production in 2015 directed by Thaddeus Strassberger and conducted by Leon Botstein. The role of Mark was sung by Neil Cooper, Thirza by Katharine Goeldner, Avis by Sky Ingram, and Pasco by Louis Otey. A video of the full production is available on Bard's ipstreaming page and is also available on YouTube.[13][14]

The full version of The Wreckers was performed by Arcadian Opera in November 2018, at The Roxburgh Theatre, Stowe, Buckinghamshire in England, to mark the centenary of British Women's’ suffrage and Ethel Smyth’s role in that victory. The critically acclaimed production was conducted by Justin Lavender (who sang the leading tenor role of Mark in the 1994 Proms performance and on the Conifer/Retrospect recording) and directed by Alison Marshall. The performance was in Ethel Smyth’s own English translation and the role of Mark was sung by Brian Smith Walters, Thirza by Jennifer Parker, Avis by April Frederick and Pascoe by Steven East.[15]

Glyndebourne Festival Opera scheduled the opera to open the 2022 season, with its original French libretto.[16] The company gave a performance in London in July 2022 as their annual contribution to the BBC Proms. The Houston Grand Opera has also announced a production in a new English translation, set for the fall of 2022.


Role Voice type Premiere cast,
11 November 1906
(Conductor: – Richard Hagel)
Pascoe, the local preacher Baritone Walter Soomer [de][17]
Thirza, his wife Mezzo-soprano Paula Doenges [de][18]
Lawrence, the Lighthouse keeper Baritone
Mark, a young fisherman Tenor Jacques Urlus[19]
Avis, Lawrence's daughter Soprano Luise Fladnitzer[20]
Chorus: villagers and fishermen


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.




  1. ^ Fuller, Sophie. "Dame Ethel Smyth, The Wreckers". American Symphony Orchestra. Retrieved 17 March 2015.
  2. ^ Banfield, p. 1181
  3. ^ Holden, p. 863
  4. ^ a b c Sophie Fuller, "The Wreckers (1904)" on americansymphony.org. Retrieved 1 March 2013
  5. ^ Fuller quoting Smyth on the American Symphony Orchestra website at the time of that orchestra's performance in 2007
  6. ^ a b c Booklet accompanying Conifer Classics' recording
  7. ^ Reid, p. ?
  8. ^ Paul Rodmell (2016). Opera in the British Isles, 1875-1918. Routledge. p. 306. ISBN 9781317085454.
  9. ^ Kathleen Abromeit, "Ethel Smyth, The Wreckers, and Sir Thomas Beecham", The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 73, No. 2, pp. 196–211, 1989
  10. ^ Smyth, pp. 173–174, in Norman Lebrecht, "Ethel Smyth", Mahler Remembered, London: Faber and Faber 1987, p. 45
  11. ^ "Retrospect Opera - Smyth, The Wreckers". Retrospect Opera. Retrieved 16 March 2021.
  12. ^ "Ethel Smyth's The Wreckers thrillingly staged in New York". bachtrack.com. Retrieved 2020-09-30.
  13. ^ THE WRECKERS • Bard SummerScape Opera 2015 on YouTube
  14. ^ College, Fisher Center at Bard. "The Wreckers at Bard College". fishercenter.bard.edu. Retrieved 2020-09-30.
  15. ^ https://www.stowe.co.uk/whats-on/arts-at-stowe-autumn-2018/arcadian-opera-presents-the-wreckers-(2) [dead link]
  16. ^ "Festival".
  17. ^ "Pascoe". Oxford Reference. Retrieved 14 February 2020.
  18. ^ Kutsch et al., p. 5537. NB Nikisch is erroneously given as the conductor.
  19. ^ Bourne, p. 183
  20. ^ Bourne, p. 23
  21. ^ Orchard, Lewis. Dame Ethel Smyth – Recorded Music. Retrieved 28 April 2019.

Cited sources

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.

External links[edit]