The Wreckers by Ethel Smyth 4****Glyndebourne Opera Festival, Lewes, East Sussex. Clare Colvin

“Everything the sea brings us comes from God,” declares the methodist pastor of an impoverished and devoutly religious Cornish village.  Except what the sea brings in are shipwrecks, deliberately caused by the lighthouse keeper dowsing the warning flares on the rocks.  The villagers then plunder the wrecked ship for salvage and murder the crew. 

Ethel Smyth’s third and grandest opera  The Wreckers was inspired by an 1886 walking tour of Cornwall during which Smyth heard about the practice a century earlier by isolated coastal communities of “wrecking” as a way of existence.   The opera was premiered in Leipzig in 1906 and received its first London production in 1909, but has been neglected since in the line of English operas from Purcell to Britten.  The composer’s decision to have a French libretto by her French-domiciled former lover Henry Brewster may not have contributed to its English credentials, though Glyndebourne in its new production retains the revised French libretto, along with English sur-titles.  

At the beginning of the 20th century Ethel Smyth was a rarity as a woman composer.  She was also a political activist, radical feminist and general force of nature, who even served a term in prison for vandalising a politician’s home with a battalion of fellow suffragettes.   Smyth’s passion for justice and hatred of religious hypocrisy comes through loud and clear in this dark tale of inverted morality.

Director Melly Still, following successful stagings for Glyndebourne of Rusalka and The Cunning Little Vixen, has created  a mysterious natural world of sea and cliffs.   Shadows ebb and flow along with the tides, evoking a feeling of uncertainty and murkiness. A rickety platform and steps to one side leads to the pastor’s house where he keeps his much younger and disaffected wife Thurza.  Steps towards the back of the stage lead down to the tidal cave, setting for the kangaroo court of the third act when those who secretly frustrated the wreckers by making life-saving bonfires are tried as traitors.

The twisted morality by which the community lives contributes to a tangled web of love and hate.  American mezzo Karis Tucker’s rebellious wife Thurza spurns her husband pastor Pasko, and secretly meets Mexican tenor Rodrigo Porras Garulo’s musician Marc, with whom she conspires to light bonfires.  The lighthouse keeper’s daughter Avis meanwhile, rejected by Marc, sets to tracking down his new love, and to finding the traitor who is lighting the fires.  Australian soprano Lauren Fagan finely captures the vicious spirit of the psychotic Avis.   Bass-baritone Philip Horst as Pasko dominates the village, along with Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as Tallan, the pub landlord who offers beer to assuage the villagers’ hunger, and James Rutherford as Laurent, the rogue lighthouse keeper.  

Glyndebourne Chorus is in cracking form as the villagers bay for the blood of whoever comes under suspicion.  London Philharmonic Orchestra under Conductor Robin Ticciati brings out the passion of the score, remaining unfazed when a Glyndebourne fire alarm was triggered in the last act of the second night performance.   After several minutes of confusion, the fire alarm was stopped and we returned as if uninterrupted to the kangaroo court. 

The ending, with the lovers Thurza and Marc left to die in the rising waters of the cave, suggests elements of Verdi’s Aida and Wagner’s Tristan e Isolde.  The score and the plot may be somewhat eclectic, but the opera, like its composer, has a natural force that can’t be denied.   At Glyndebourne till 24 June, then semi-staged at BBC Proms 2022 on Sunday 24 July.

Conductor:    Robin Ticciati

Director:        Melly Still

Designer:       Ana Inés Jabares-Pita

Choreographer:  Mike Ashcroft

Lighting designer:  Malcolm Rippeth

Video designer:   Akhila Krishnan

London Philharmonic Orchestra

Leader: Pieter Schoeman

Organ:  Matthew Fletcher

The Glyndebourne Chorus

Chorus Director:  Aidan Oliver

Production pictures: C Glyndebourne Productions Ltd Photo: Richard Hubert Smith


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