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Between 1903 and 1904, Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)
wrote her third opera, “The Wreckers.” It was premiered in
1906 in Leipzig. She’d traveled there in 1877 to study, because
as a female composer in Victorian England, she flew against
every convention of British life for women of that time. In fact,
her early fame was much greater in Germany than in her
native Great Britain.

The story of “The Wreckers” was an adaptation of an old
Cornish drama, and the libretto was originally set in French
by Henry Brewster, Smyth’s collaborator on two earlier operas.
As the 1909 British premiere was given under the baton of
Sir Thomas Beecham, it was then translated into English.
This was the language used in the 1994 recording that I recently
heard, which was taped from a live performance at the
Royal Albert Hall.

The “wreckers” of the title refer to the inhabitants of a
fishing village in Cornwall who supplemented their livelihood
by luring ships to the rocky coast in stormy weather. The plot
also features a pair of young lovers, Mark and Thirza, who
attempt to warn the approaching ships, and are thereby
branded as traitors by the villagers. The end of the opera
finds them both left to drown in one of the seaside caves,
as the tide rises.

This was the first work by Ethel Smyth that I’ve heard, and
it was something of a discovery for me. Her handling of the
orchestra demonstrated her sure compositional hand, and
I heard influences of the music of Cesar Franck (1822-1890)
and Ernest Chausson (1855-1899). It was very effective from
a dramatic standpoint, even though the whole work could
occasionally lapse into the mundane operatic conventions
of the time.

As I listened to a concert performance and not a staged one,
there wasn’t the sense of drama from a spatial perspective.
Given the quality of some of the voices, the singers were
excessively miked for my taste, in relationship to the orchestra.
Mezzo-soprano Anne-Marie Owens sang the role of Thirza,
and sounded a bit covered; however, tenor Justin Lavender
and baritone Peter Sidhorn both sang well, in the respective
roles of Mark and Pascoe. The Huddersfield Choral Society
provided good choral performances, but the real heroes
of this two-CD set were the members of the BBC Philharmonic,
under the direction of conductor Odaline de la Martinez.

I believe that the best thing about this work is the orchestral
writing; therefore, I would have preferred a more prominent
orchestral presence in the recording mix. For example, the
prelude to Act Two, “On the Cliffs of Cornwall,” was a particularly
effective tone painting. Overall, I would still say that this work
gets a “thumbs up” as an operatic discovery, and it was
generally well served by this set, released under the Conifer
Classics label. It’s billed as a “World Premiere Recording,”
although the Viking Opera Guide lists a 1982 recording by the
Bradford Opera Group. In addition to an English libretto,
the accompanying booklet includes informative essays about
the work and Smyth by Ronald Crichton, as well as artist
biographies and photographs. “The Wreckers” is worth
checking out.