The Wreckers review – Glyndebourne bring Smyth’s rarity to vivid and passionate life

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

This year’s Glyndebourne season opens with a new production of Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers, conducted by Robin Ticciati and directed by Melly Still. The first opera by a female composer to be performed at the festival, it has a difficult history and a somewhat ambiguous reputation. Begun in 1902 to a French libretto by Smyth’s sometime lover Henry Brewster, it was first performed in Leipzig, in German, in 1906, in a much cut version that Smyth loathed, before being heard in London in 1909 with the libretto in an English translation by Smyth herself, considered so problematic that posthumous attempts have been made to rewrite it. An urtext edition by Martyn Bennett going back to the original French version is given here.

Though The Wreckers has long been a rarity, huge claims have been made for it as the most significant English opera between Purcell’s death (1695) and Britten’s Peter Grimes (1945), a work that The Wreckers is widely thought to anticipate. Smyth presents us with an at times chilling portrait of a devout yet hypocritical Cornish community plundering ships lured on to nearby rocks, only to find its skewed values challenged when Thurza, the disaffected wife of the pastor Pasko, begins an affair with the fisherman Marc.

Lauren Fagan (Avis), James Rutherford (Laurent) and Philip Horst (Pasko) in The Wreckers by Ethel Smyth
A sinister world … Lauren Fagan as Avis, James Rutherford as Laurent and Horst as Pasko. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The dramatic prominence of the chorus, together with Smyth’s exacting choral writing, are the chief claims to originality of a score that elsewhere all too frequently betrays its mix of influences. Thematic outlines recall Brahms, while the big second act duet for Marc and Thurza echoes Wagner’s Tristan. The harps and horns of Debussy’s Faune repeatedly suggest the stirrings of desire, while Marc’s wilful ex Avis gets an aria that crosses Carmen’s Séguedille with Anitra’s Dance from Peer Gynt. The resulting stylistic range is all too frequently too wide to suggest coherence or unity, though the last act is tauter than the rest of it.

‘Sensational’ : Glyndebourne chorus in the Wreckers.
‘Sensational’ … Glyndebourne chorus in the Wreckers. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Glyndebourne, however, have really done it proud. Ticciati conducts with great passion and drive, and the playing is dynamic, precise and detailed. Rodrigo Porras Garulo is the charismatic Marc opposite Karis Tucker’s intense Thurza, fierce in her condemnation of the community from which she feels alienated, and admirably secure over the role’s implacably wide range. Philip Horst makes a tortured Pasko, racked with frustrated desire for his wife, while Lauren Fagan, excellent as always, is the impulsive, unstable Avis.

Related: ‘She’s badass’: how brick-throwing suffragette Ethel Smyth composed an opera to shake up Britain

The evening’s real heroes, though, are the Glyndebourne Chorus: Smyth doesn’t make their task easy but their singing is sensational throughout. They’re superbly marshalled by Still, too, in a modern-dress staging that is strong on the dynamics of how individuals can be collectively transformed into a mob. Sets and costumes evoke a sinister world created from the detritus of the lives of others, where shadowy figures hover in the semi-darkness like the Fates of classical mythology, propelling the narrative remorselessly. By no means, I think, the neglected masterpiece that some have argued, but it’s hard to imagine it better done.

• In rep at Glyndebourne festival until 24 June and at the BBC Proms and on Radio 3/BBC Sounds on 24 July.