The most curious thing about Dame Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers – a “neglected” opera, rescued from the shadows for this summer’s Glyndebourne festival – is its morality. Which is distinctly skewed.
The curtain rises on an isolated coastal community who, led by their local pastor, seem to be devout. The opening chorus is a testament to faith, with rousing Alleluias. But you then discover that these people live by luring passing ships onto the rocks where they get wrecked, their crews drowned and their cargoes plundered. All apparently with the approval of almighty God – or the community’s idea of God as an Old Testament avenger who protects his own and sanctions the casual destruction of everyone else.
As the plot unfolds there are challenges to this view of divine ordinance, with two characters who try to sabotage the wreckings and represent a more conventional understanding of good behaviour. But they die for their efforts. While the opera doesn’t exactly commend this outcome, it doesn’t exactly condemn it either. There’s some sympathy for the community – especially the pastor – whose murderous acts are presented in the excusing context of poverty and deprivation. This makes for an unsettling experience – as does everything about The Wreckers, which has legendary status as an opera widely known but rarely seen and (according to who you ask) either a missing link in the history of English lyric theatre or a lumbering white elephant neglected for good reason.
Smyth composed it back in 1904: a time when Edwardian ladies of her class (she was the daughter of a major-general) were expected to write country diaries, not operas, and mocked for any greater ambition. An eccentric of formidable appearance, passions and proclivities (not least as a suffragette who ended up in prison for smashing windows), she accordingly became a figure of fun. And the laughter lived on, obscuring her gifts which were, in truth, remarkable.
Through recent decades there have been attempts to rehabilitate The Wreckers, none of which quite took. But in the current climate, ruled by a collective energy to rediscover overlooked composers, it was clearly time to give the piece another chance; and all credit to Glyndebourne for stepping forward, with a production (director Melly Still, conductor Robin Ticciati) that’s been deservedly well-received. But whether all this has now earned Smyth’s masterwork a place in repertory, I doubt.
The score is competent, sometimes impressive, with a sense of drama that can be arresting. And as social history it’s certainly important. But its claim to greatness is exaggerated. Too much of the writing is routine, over-indebted to the major players in late 19th century European opera. And with so little obvious Englishness about the score, beyond its authorship, its contribution to our native operatic culture is equivocal.
Like many in the Glyndebourne audience, I’m happy to have seen it, and applaud the efforts that went into getting it onstage (the score was in a mess and needed reconstructive work). But did it leave a deep impression? Did I care about the characters? Perhaps not. All I took away with me was the enduring puzzle of its moral stance.
Sir James Macmillan has a long and close relationship with the Dominicans. And it’s been strengthened over time by friendship with Fr Lawrence Lew, now Prior of the community at St Dominic’s, North London, where MacMillan recently attended a concert of his own music to celebrate 800 years since the Order’s arrival in Britain.
MacMillan’s choral output is prolific and inevitably has its tropes, not a few of them linked to the Scottish vernacular tradition in which he was raised. But he still, remarkably, manages to deliver piece after piece that inhabits its own world, in a distinctive manner. And this programme, drawn from relatively recent compositions and performed by the Scottish vocal group Cappella Nova, offered perfect illustrations – starting with the set of Culham Motets he wrote in 2015 for the consecration of the striking, new, neo-classical chapel at Culham Court, a private estate in Berkshire.
These motets are, like the architecture of the chapel, stark, strong and portentous. But they’re also warm, humane, never detached or just an “exercise”: they’re written absolutely from within the faith they document. And no less saturated with belief were other things included in the programme: music written for the wedding of MacMillan’s son (at which Fr Lew officiated); a vivid if skeletal scena in memory of Oscar Romero written for Westminster Abbey; and unusually for MacMillan, who struggles to write fast music, an up-tempo anthem, “Sing Joyfully to the Lord”, that bounced with Waltonesque exuberance.
Item by item, these were treasures. You can hear them on Cappella Nova’s latest CD, Consecration, issued by the Scottish label Linn. And heaven knowns (as I suspect it does) they’re beautiful.
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