fri 19/07/2024

The Wreckers, Glyndebourne review - no masterpiece, but vividly sung and played | reviews, news & interviews

The Wreckers, Glyndebourne review - no masterpiece, but vividly sung and played

The Wreckers, Glyndebourne review - no masterpiece, but vividly sung and played

Blowsy, intriguing grand opera by Ethel Smyth has full theatrical impact

Preacher Pasko (Philip Horst) punishes adulterous wife Thurza (Karis Tucker)All images by Bill Knight for theartsdesk

Interesting for the history of music, but not for music? Passing acquaintance with Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers, a grand opera by a woman at a time (the early 1900s) when circumstances made such a thing near-impossible, had suggested so.

Then along come Glyndebourne’s music director, Robin Ticciati, and a team dedicated to two years’ research in putting the full original together, including an extra half-hour of music not heard before, and it turns out to be more than that.

It's big-hearted, energetic and massively flawed. The libretto, by a one-time lover of the composer, Henry Brewster, an American brought up in France who wrote it in that country’s language, is flatulent and sometimes risible. The basis – Smyth’s walking tour of Cornwall, where she learned of early Methodist communities who invoked God in their wrecking of ships, plunder of the goods and murder of the crews – yields a horrible portrait of a psychotic community as the frame for a familiar operatic tale of illicit lovers and jealous rivals. Scene from The WreckersDirector Melly Still tries to go for contemporary in the look (designs by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita) and visual overload from the start, masking an overture which already reveals Smyth’s melodramatic intent. Four dancers representing, I guess, fateful spirits from the past wave and flounce around to not much effect. Act 2 looks a mess, with reams of dry ice; Act 3 fails to make a love-death anything but risible.

Then you take into account the tremendous commitment of all involved, and you feel a bit guilty for sniggering at excess. Though it takes a long time in getting to the point of who’s lighting the fires to warn ships away from the murderous pack, the drama does deliver, with a central love-duet that does all the right things while not being especially memorable and a final “secret trial” in a cave which pulls one lurid stop after another out with undeniable theatricality (pictured below). The fact is that Ticciati believes in every phrase, and that Glyndebourne has assembled a magnificent cast and the usual chorus of young future stars relishing its presence as a pre-Grimesian Borough, delivering the hate and the fury as if they were up to Britten’s level (they aren’t, and in any case we’re talking about 1906 rather than 1945, but in the moment manner triumphs over matter). Act 3 in The WreckersSmyth’s ingestion of what was going on in opera at the time is impressive, even if the tritone, that interval of the augemented fourth known since medieval days as the “devil in music”, and the “supernatural” whole-tone scale incorporating it, are not often used with the subtlety of Debussy, whose Pelléas et Mélisande must have been an influence on the more intimate music, of which there is plenty in between the bluster. But there is an attractive French manner in some of the short set-pieces sewn into the fabric, not least the music for Avis, jealous of the handsome Marc’s love for Another, which is Carmenesque at times; soprano Lauren Fagan (pictured below) delivers them all with commitment and spot-on top notes, giving us into the bargain the only characterisation which really has any individuality.

Karis Tucker as outsider Thurza, married to the vicious old preacher Pasko, has to deal with her cipherishness, a problem also for tenor Rodrigo Poirtas Garulo’s Marc, the freedom-fighter who lights the beacons; their vocal assurance just about carries the big duet. But they do properly flame in the series of Act Three accusations and revelations. Philip Horst is unflinchingly strong of voice as Pasko: his big Act One number is musically memorable, if led by the orchestra, while the solo in the next act just makes one feel “get on with it” after the lovers have fled the scene. James Rutherford’s Laurent comes into his own in the climactic trial. Marta Fontanals-Simmons as the boy Jacquet has attractive scherzo-like music in her scene with Avis in Act Two. Lauren Fagan as AvisThat follows on from the most haunting stretch of the score, a preludial sea picture with splashes of harp in which Smyth touches on marine magic at a deeper level than in most of the rest of the opera; good to know that it was extracted as a concert-piece, It’s ravishingly phrased by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Ticciati, who nurtures everything as if it were first-class music and has the surest of dramatic instincts. All that typical Glyndebourne preparation time has paid off and yielded a result which is never dull, however blatant at times. Kudos to all involved, and what a great idea to light fire-beacons all round the grounds to make us wonder and slightly fearful afterwards - let's hope the Christies are safe from the posse of neighbours formerly on the warpath about the wind turbine on the hill.

Glyndebourne has assembled a magnificent cast and the usual chorus of young future stars relishing its presence as a pre-Grimesian Borough


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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Rather a harsh review. I attended the first night and was revetted. Tremendous writing for the choir and orchestration. The libretto stands up better than most. Imaginatively staged I am going again and hope it i recorded.

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