Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) was quite a Dame. A progressive, dauntlessly prolific composer, she demanded and commanded her place in a man’s world. She hobnobbed with Brahms, Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Dvorák. A free-thinker, she haunted the best salons. She also exerted force as a champion of women’s rights, and was ceremoniously jailed for her efforts.
For reasons not altogether clear, little of her music – big, brash, smart and romantic – has survived. Still, she has had persuasive champions, Bruno Walter and Thomas Beecham in the past, now Leon Botstein.
In spite of lofty intentions, Botstein is not the world’s greatest conductor. He seems to value power over nuance, motion over expansion, forte over piano. But he is a solid technician and an inquisitive scholar. On Sunday, he ventured a concert reading of Smyth’s The Wreckers, completed in 1904 yet never heard in the US. Faint praise marked his annotation: “The Wreckers, though not perfect, is perhaps the finest opera written in modern history by a woman before World War II.” Once the music started, however, he offered persuasive defence.
A melodrama about bravery and sacrifice among God-fearing killers and plunderers, The Wreckers abounds in prim Victorian verse (clumsy libretto by Henry Brewster). The exposition meanders, and the vocal flights avoid lyrical ecstasy. Still, Smyth inspires awe with moody interludes, soaring climactic structures, rousing choruses, complex set-pieces and, not least, knowing echoes. Like Tristan, her opera takes place in Cornwall (coincidence?). The panorama touches on a sensuous ode to the Wagnerian “Liebesnacht” plus a “Liebestod” of sorts in the watery finale – with splashes of impressionism added.
The cast was led by Kate Aldrich (a passionate mezzo-soprano with a remarkably lustrous top), Richard Cox (a sensitive tenor best in passages of reflection),
Andrew Schroeder (a baritone of commanding warmth), Louis Otey (a baritone of incisive thrust) and Ellen Dehn (a fine light-soprano tested by heavy-soprano stresses). All sang as if a masterpiece were at hand. Maybe they were right.