LEWES, England — Late last autumn there was an unusual sight on a beach in southern England: a team of staff from Glyndebourne Festival Opera combed the gravel for wreckage and jetsam, then hauled it in wheelbarrows for stage use.
It’s an unusually true-to-life approach to one of Glyndebourne’s productions this season – British composer Ethel Smyth’s ‘The Wreckers’. The action is set in an impoverished coastal community in 18th-century England, whose inhabitants earn their living cleaning up the wreckage of ships they drove ashore (as many did in the past).
Glyndebourne pays a lot of attention to ‘The Wreckers’, which, despite its premiere in 1906, has only been performed professionally a handful of times. For nearly three years now, the Glyndebourne archivist has been combing through documents and old scores to put together a new performance edition that best suits the composer’s intentions. A production of this news-recovered version, which will run from Saturday through June 24, will be sung in French, just like the original.
A choir of more than 50, a team of dancers and a 75-piece orchestra have been hired to spice up the performance. And as a mark of respect, “The Wreckers” has been placed on pole position as the opening show of the summer festival, replacing the operatic bighitters that generally occupy this spot.
“We’re trying to do Ethel justice,” Robin Ticciati, Glyndebourne’s music director, said in an interview. “Honestly, it was about time someone did.”
In the early decades of the 20th century, Smyth was probably the most famous female composer of her generation, but now her work is almost never heard. It was championed by Mahler and by the conductor Thomas Beecham, who proclaimed “The Wreckers” a masterpiece and set it up at the Royal Opera House in London. In 1903, Smyth became the first woman to have a work performed at the Metropolitan Opera (and, amazingly, she remained the only one until 2016).
But after her death in 1944, Smyth’s music gradually disappeared from the repertoire. There were fewer and fewer outings for her symphonies, choral works or chamber works, and even fewer stagings of her six operas. There are only a handful of recordings: the only version of “The Wreckers” currently available is from a live performance from 1994.
Patient advocacy by American conductor Leon Botstein resulted in a production of “The Wreckers” at the 2015 Bard SummerScape Festival at Bard College in New York, and there have been scattered performances of Smyth’s other works since then. In November, the Houston Opera will also perform “The Wreckers” in its own new staging.
Smyth might have raised an eyebrow: next to nothing for decades, then two new shows at once.
Leah Broad, a music historian at Oxford University who is writing a group biography of Smyth, said “gender bias” was one of the main reasons why Smyth’s music was so little performed.
“There are other issues, but that has a lot to do with them,” Broad said. “She is really an important historical composer.”
Smyth also has one of the great life stories in music history. Raised in a military household, her father was initially banned from studying music, but she eventually won and entered the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany in 1887.
Although she dropped out after a year, unimpressed with the teaching, during her stay she met Dvorak, Grieg and Tchaikovsky – who wrote in his diary that Smyth was “one of the few female composers from whom one can seriously consider creating something of value.” to achieve”. †
A formidable networker, Symth later became friends with many famous people, including George Bernard Shaw and Empress Eugenie of France, and she had gossiped a lot about romantic affairs with both men and women.
Smyth had many of her works performed and won a measure of acceptance, but always fought the assumption that what she was doing was essentially second-rate. Writing in The Times of London in 1893, one critic praised her “virile” compositions and praised “the complete absence of the qualities usually associated with female productions.”
More humiliatingly, Smyth was often treated as the butt of a joke — as famous for her powerful personality, lots of dogs, and penchant for wearing men’s suits as anything she’d written. Virginia Woolf, who had an intimate correspondence with the much older Smyth, nevertheless lamented in her diary that the subject of Smyth’s affection was as if she were “taken by a gigantic crab.”
In 1910, Smyth became involved in the women’s suffrage movement. Two years later, she was sent to Holloway Prison in London for several months after she threw a rock through the window of a government office. When Beecham visited her in prison, he later recalled, he was stunned to see Smyth conducting a performance of her rousing “March of the Women” from a cell window “in almost Bacchic frenzy, with a toothbrush.”
Like much of Smyth’s music, “The Wreckers” is an intense experience. Inspired by the composer’s visits to remote coastal villages in Cornwall, southwest England, it centers on the wife of a local preacher, Thirza, who is torn between her sense of duty to her Puritan husband and her love for a good-hearted fisherman.
Not coincidentally, Smyth himself was involved in a romantic triangle with the opera’s librettist, the married American poet Henry Brewster, and his wife Julia. “There’s such passion in love music,” said Karis Tucker, who sings Thirza at Glyndebourne. “She knew what she was writing about.”
Ticciati said the score had both power and remarkable range, sounding “at times like Brahms, then Mendelssohn, then French exoticism, even the late Debussy.” He added: “You think, ‘What is this?’ And then you realize this is Ethel Smyth; that’s what she sounds like.”
In addition to evoking a misty maritime atmosphere, infused with snatches of folk songs and sea shanties, Smyth seems especially fond of crowd scenes as her supposedly God-fearing villagers prepare to lynch castaways before turning on each other.
There is more than a hint of “The Crucible” over “The Wreckers,” and as Broad, the music historian noted, the pre-echoes of another seafaring work, Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes” (1945), are even stronger. “Brits owned a score of ‘The Wreckers’; it’s in his library,” Broad said. “He was never polite to Ethel Smyth’s music, but he was clearly influenced by it.”
Finally, more of us will have a chance to make a decision. In addition to the Houston production, Glyndebourne will take a semi-staged version of his “Wreckers” to the BBC Proms festival in July. The Proms makes Smyth a major focus and showcases other works by her, including Mass in D and Concerto for Violin and Horn.
“She’s so late at her time,” Broad said. “When you hear her, it’s like suddenly filling a gap in the music.”
Fearlessly inventive, sensual and at times shocking, “The Wreckers” is a beautiful testament to the woman who created it, Ticciati said. “She’s someone who has a relentless sense of what she believed in, and it shows in the drama,” he argued.
“I don’t want to say that Ethel was bigger than life,” Ticciati added, “because I think… used to be her life.”
May 21 through June 24 at the Glyndebourne Festival in Lewes, England; glyndebourne.com.