Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2022 Review: The Wreckers

Rodrigo Porras Garulo & Karis Tucker Shine in Evocative & Energetic Performance of Ethel Smyth’s Opera

By Benjamin Poore
(© Richard Hubert Smith)

Ethel Smyth’s opera “The Wreckers” opened the Glyndebourne Festival Opera last weekend, receiving its first-ever performance in the original French – libretto by Henry Brewster – and with many savage cuts restored.

Its journey has been a long one: Smyth was repeatedly thwarted by war, misogynistic attitudes, musical conservatism, and meddling conductors. For some context – this is the first time an opera by a woman has ever graced the stage of the Glyndebourne Festival – notwithstanding their recent Balancing the Score project for female composers.

Melly Still directs this windswept tale of a brutal coastal community whose perverse religious fervor justifies luring sailors to their deaths on the rocks so that they can live by salvage. Only Marc and his secret lover Thurza stand against the community, clandestinely lighting beacons to warn ships off the coastline.

Desires overlap: Avis, wife of lighthouse keeper Laurent, loves Marc; Jacquet, son of the landlord, loves Avis; Pakso wants Thurza, and these urges drive the action too. Marc and Avis’ treachery is seized upon by the community, who mistakenly accuse Pasko, the censorious religious leader of the group, before Marc confesses; Thurza too wishes to die with him, and they are drowned in a cave after a short trial, in social and sexual defiance of the prevailing order. Smyth’s own powerful political experiences as a suffragette are writ large in the work; it’s a piece that is athletic in its attack on various pillars of society.

A Contemporary Look

Dress is contemporary – costumes and designs by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita – though the space feels more psychological and abstract, something heightened by video projections and spare designs, as well as four female dancers who prowl about the action like Greek Furies, between this world and the next. The violent tools of this Cornish community’s trade are lowered ominously from the flies; they don terrifying makeshift masks for their violent business in a thrilling Act one chorus, as the storm rolls in.

Extravagance is a watchword for Glyndebourne, not least when it comes to the picnics, and Still perhaps fell into a couple of traps: the dancers crowded some scenes and otherwise drifted about needlessly at other points. Overactive stage machinery – like something out of a West End musical – made for fussy wandering that distracted from the vocal and emotional climaxes of the very final scene, as well as a rather naff wave-like movement from the chorus.

But much was effective indeed – the chorus circling the doomed Thurza and Marc as they sing their final duet; organic-looking well-crafted chorus movement and characterisation gave Act three threat and intensity that rivaled Deborah Warner’s exceptional recent “Peter Grimes” (kudos to assistant directors Oliver Platt and Donna Stirrup). Real water drenched the chorus as the cave started to fill; a lighthouse beacon ominously pulsed through the auditorium before the curtain went up.

Scrims and glowering lighting, along with unobtrusive but atmospheric video projections – down to Malcolm Rippeth and Akhila Krishnan respectively – gave the whole thing a baleful, doom-laden feel. You can practically smell the musty damp of the coastline. The stage itself was relatively empty, giving us a feeling of the sea’s awesomeness and the lonely isolation of key characters; rickety wooden steps and platforms kept the place feeling desperate and precarious. There are clever psychological touches – as Avis is denounced and banished from the community, her would-be lover Jacquet seemingly follows behind her, as if to make a life with her – only to close the gate behind her and shut her out.

Remarkable Contrast & Dexterity

Philip Horst’s Pasko had a cold strength in his voice, notwithstanding a couple of slightly overblown top notes, and strutted about the stage with a sneer of cold command; he proved especially effective as a center of vocal and dramatic gravity in the chorus scenes, and softened just enough to hint at some residual humanity when he discovers the truth about Thurza in Act two. James Rutherford’s Laurent made a more bullish counterpart, also singing with real intensity and focus.

Rodrigo Porras Garulo makes the quite contrast as Marc, a pleasingly flexible tenor with silky, smoldering lines, and more gentle colors across his soft-grained voice. The final act calls for a more Wagnerian vocal disposition, and despite a couple of hints of tiredness early on, he rang defiantly throughout.

His lover Thurza was a darkly-gleaming Karis Tucker, who showed remarkable dexterity and consistency across Smyth’s ambitious mezzo-soprano writing, with top notes that probably please most sopranos. Lauren Fagan’s Avis was (effectively) brittle and waspish, with razor-sharp top notes and and especially lancing way with the spoken moments of the text; she summoned a different kind of wildness to Tucker, whose steel comes from moral strength. Fagan’s Avis knows how hard the world is and rages against it. Marta Fontanals-Simmons put in a raffish turn as Jacquet.

Smyth’s original score was bowdlerized in its previous incarnations; here around half an hour of new music has been retouched and re-orchestrated by Glyndebourne’s Martyn Bennett and composer Tom Poster. It’s lively and multicolored affair, if often quite densely woven, and embroidered with a host of influences that certainly keeps listeners on their toes. At one moment we are in a Verdi grand opera, with spectacular orchestral and choral climaxes; there is a whisper of “Carmen” in Avis’ smoky seguidilla; trombones glower as if in “Gotterdammerung;” Act two begins with a Debussyian waft of harp and strings. The overture has all of the derring-do of the film music of Korngold that would come some decades later.

The chorus writing is the most impressive compositional achievement – boldly drawn, richly-textured, and thrillingly interpolated into the narrative. (The Glyndebourne Chorus, prepared by Aidan Oliver, were on roof-raising form). Marc and Thurza’s music smolders then explodes with Wagnerian extravagance; Smyth’s other notable achievement from a compositional point of view is reconciling mezzo with tenor as vocal and dramatic leads.

This is all presented with enormous panache and commitment by Robin Ticciati and the Glyndebourne pit band, the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Ticciati builds on recent successes in French repertoire at Glyndebourne by drawing out the Gounod-like qualities of the score, as well reminding us of his oozing, volcanic “Tristan” last summer. Sometimes the wide open set works against the singers, with Pasko particularly feeling like he had to push at times (he wasn’t the only one), and the excitement in the pit sometimes clouded uneven diction.

But Ticciati and his musicians give a full-blooded account of the score that certainly kept the drama moving along. It is neither a solid-gold masterpiece nor a mediocrity, at least in musical terms, and – like many operas with visible seams or formulaic shapes in their music – could live an interesting life as a repertory piece if directed and produced with imagination, as it certainly was here. The drama continued even when we left the theatre – the Glyndebourne gardens had their shroud of darkness punctuated by great burning braziers, like those Marc and Thurza light to warn the ships.

Who doesn’t like a little melodrama?


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