HOUSTON — Houston Grand Opera beat every other major American opera company to the punch by staging the British composer Ethel Smyth’s opera The Wreckers in October. At a time when works by composers long overlooked due to race or gender are being exhumed at a record pace, Smyth’s six operas are ripe for revivals. Plus, her back story is extraordinary, and it’s not as if she were an unknown.
Smyth was a lesbian and militant suffragette who hobnobbed with royalty. A profound hearing loss in her fifties curtailed her composing career but not her drive. For over 100 years, her second opera, Der Wald, remained the only opera by a woman composer ever to be performed at the Metropolitan Opera. The work that brought her the most fame, however, was her 1910 song “The March of the Women,” which became the official anthem of the suffragette movement. These few facts just scratch the surface of Smyth’s remarkable life.
The Wreckers was Smyth’s third opera and only full-length one. She was inspired to compose it after a walking tour in Cornwall with Harry (H.B.) Brewster, an English-American writer and philosopher who was the only man she ever loved and the single greatest influence of her life.
Brewster wrote the libretto in French, but the opera premiered in 1906 in Leipzig in a German translation with the title Der Strandrecht. Houston Grand Opera used a version of the libretto prepared by the late Amanda Holden based on Smyth’s own problematic translation, which she crafted on her own after Brewster’s death.
Smyth characterized the opera as a story of “wrecking, religion, love and that sort of thing.” In 18th-century Cornwall, the inhabitants of a small village carve out a meager existence by plundering ships that run aground on the rocky coastline.
Ancient salvage rights are invoked to justify keeping lighthouses dark as well as the associated murders, but religious fervor also plays its part. The inhabitants of the town are pietists of the Wesleyan Revival, the foundation of present-day Methodism, of which impoverished Cornwall was a stronghold. The townsfolk pray for storms, not fair weather.
Director Louisa Muller locates the action exactly as the libretto dictates. Christopher Oram’s sets are seemingly carved out of the granite that forms the geological backbone of Cornwall. Stone, fire, and water combine to create a realistic backdrop for the story.
Act I unfolds in an isolated, gray, and claustrophobic village that hugs the coastline. It is dominated by a large, weatherworn wooden cross. The preacher Pascoe berates the community for drinking and dancing on the Sabbath and warns that God’s wrath for such transgressions is expressed in his refusal to provide for them. His young wife Thirza, however, has strayed from the flock as a matter of conscience and is also in love with Mark, a fisherman.
In the second act, Thirza and Mark light a beacon on a rocky summit, where Pascoe is later found and presumed guilty of being the traitor who lit it. The final scene takes place in a cave that is submerged in water at high tide. Pascoe is being tried as the traitor as he refuses to betray his wife, whom he had seen escaping from where the beacon was lit. Rather than let an innocent man die, Mark confesses, and he and Thirza are chained to the floor of the cave and left to drown.
Smyth’s friend and champion Thomas Beecham, who both conducted the British premiere of The Wreckers in 1909 at Her Majesty’s Theatre and included it in his first season at Covent Garden the following year, lamented that he never experienced a convincing performance of the opera, as the singers performing Thirza and Mark lacked the “tithe of that intensity and spiritual exaltation” required for the roles. HGO got halfway there with Sasha Cooke as Thirza.
Cooke was a transcendent, otherworldly presence. Her voice blazed as she expressed both her love for Mark and disdain for the hypocrisy of her husband and the townsfolk. By any measure, Cooke captured the essential elements that Beecham yearned to experience in Thirza.
It has been written of Smyth that she was at her best as a composer when writing of love. Alvis is one such character, at least in the hands of Mané Galoyan. The Armenian soprano was outstanding as Alvis, who has a burning but unrequited love for Mark. Galoyan instilled ferocity and passion into every note that she sang. If there was one singer on stage who seemed to embody the unbridled spirit of Ethyl Smyth, it was Galoyan.
The object of Thirza and Alvis’ devotion, sung by tenor Norman Reinhardt, however, lacked the voice and dramatic flair to make Mark burn with the same intensity as they did. His lyric tenor had neither the sheen nor the thrust that the role requires. Act II, which admittedly may not contain Smyth’s most inspired vocal writing, sagged more than need be due to Reinhardt’s inability to make the musical lines soar.
As Pascoe, baritone Reginald Smith, Jr. captured the gravitas and the complexity of a preacher beholden to a hollow faith and a faithless wife. His rich, powerful voice was as adept in expressing fervor as fear. Baritone Daniel Belcher gave a rock-solid performance as Lawrence, the keeper of the lighthouse, whose belief in the righteousness of the villagers’ way of life was more certain than that of Pascoe.
Tenor Paul Groves also brightened the stage as the proprietor of the local pub, who is none too keen on keeping the Lord’s Day holy. Mezzo-soprano Sun-Ly Pierce made for a compelling Jack, the young man who is in love with Avis. Rounding out the cast as Harvey was the fine young baritone Luke Sutliff.
Smyth was a master of creating drama through the chorus, and The Wreckers is proof of that. Whether singing a hymn tune or venting the fury of the crowd, the Houston Grand Opera chorus sang magnificently. Another equal partner in the drama is the orchestra, which played splendidly under the baton of Patrick Summers, the company’s artistic and music director.
The closing seconds of the opera, which that find Thirza and Mark doomed as the waves crash into the cave, were as powerful as they were harrowing. A fierce splash of water was perfectly timed with the final chord of the opera, and then all went dark.