OPERA NEWS - The Wreckers
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The Wreckers

Bard SummerScape

The Bard SummerScape annually attempts to shine a light into the neglected corners of the opera repertoire, and the centerpiece of this year’s festival was the presentation of Ethel Smyth’s all-but-forgotten opera The Wreckers. Directed by Thaddeus Strassberger, Bard’s production marked the first staging of Smyth’s opera in the U.S. and followed a 2007 concert performance by Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra. While the performance on July 24 burnished the work’s reputation as something of a missing link in the history of British opera, the best efforts of all involved didn’t quite make the case for The Wreckers as an overlooked masterpiece. 

Smyth’s life was marked by remarkable iconoclasm: she battled her family to enroll at the Leipzig Conservatory, became a pioneering suffragette in England and all but stalked Virginia Woolf. Smyth’s 1902 opera, Der Wald, remains the only opera by a woman composer to be presented by the Met, and The Wreckers, presented four years later in Leipzig, shows her grasp of the outsider in a repressive society. A Cornish borough’s fanatical villagers, convinced by the local preacher of their divine prerogative, extinguish their lighthouse beacons and lure ships onto their rocky coast to plunder cargo. The work’s hero and heroine defy the village and light a warning blaze; captured, they confess their affair and acts of sabotage and are entombed in a grotto as the tide swells. It all makes for a Veddy British Opera.

The score seems to have an astounding bounty of riches — swelling choral numbers, Wagnerian horn writing, lush Debussy-ian orchestral harmonies and heroic vocal lines frequently buoyed by memorable folk tunes. There is something undeniably Tristan-esquein the Act II duet for Thirza and Mark, and the ostinato that begins Act III’s trial likely found its way into Britten’s ear. Still, Smyth’s outsider status is perhaps the reason that her compositional voice leaves the impression of skilled pastiche rather than distinction. In her attempts to write a grand opera, one senses that she sacrificed originality on the altar of scale. The work’s most conspicuous defect, though, is Henry Brewster’s overwrought libretto, which fails in moments of both drama and emotional exposition.

Strassberger has seemingly become the resident director for SummerScape’s operas. On this occasion, his fifth production for Bard, his otherwise handsome staging was hobbled by an overabundance of flotsam and nautical elements and a shallow stage. Without a viable playing area, his principals were left to leap and dodge dozens of wooden crates. Hannah Wasileski’s projections helped, but the mise-en-scène proved a tad claustrophobic.

Louis Otey’s fierce preacher Pascoe initially sounded stentorian, but the top of his slightly woolly baritone came undone at the end of his big Act I sermon. His sympathetic, haggard acting in the Act III trial proved affecting. Sky Ingram’s accusing soprano was lovely and agile in the expanded comprimario role of Avis, but it occasionally lacked the forward placement to make her words intelligible. As Pascoe’s wife, Thirza, Katharine Goeldner proved herself a natural actress, and her powerhouse mezzo cut with thrilling, laser-like focus in her Act II aria; her heroine emerged as the performance of the night. As her lover, Mark, tenor Neal Cooper initially displayed a clarion tenor that provided some lovely heroics during Act II, but his instrument occasionally veered into dry patches. As Lawrence, Michael Mayes did a remarkable job of projecting the text with his focused baritone. 

Pacing the ASO, Botstein held the opera together, but Smyth’s score emerged slightly foursquare; true Wagnerian rubato seemed unavailable as an expressive option. Still, Botstein’s apparent affinity for the score paid dividends in the overtures to each act. The choral writing in Smyth’s opera is both abundant and thrilling, but the deafening climaxes of some numbers grew tiresome by evening’s end. —Adam Wasserman

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