Monday, July 27, 2015

THE WRECKERS: Dame Ethel M. Smyth's Opera at BARD: Review by Polly Guerin

Fisher Center on Bard's Hudson Valley Campus
With a tumultuous orchestral score, vibrant musicality and high drama staging, THE WRECKERS, the long neglected opera by Dame Ethel Mary Smyth, arrived at Bard Annual SummerScape festival recently and garnered a sold out performance for the first fully-staged production of Smyth's masterpiece in America.. There is still time to see this rare and riveting opera;  three more performances remain: July 29 and August 2 at 2 pm and July 31 at 7:30 pm, taking place on Bard's Hudson Valley campus in the striking Frank Gehry-designed Fisher Center's Sosnoff Theater.
      Leon Botstein the esteemed music director, who incidentally is the president of Bard College, leads the
American Symphony Orchestra with a rich orchestral score that swells to heights of high drama with the grandiosity of Wagner and a hint of Bizet's Carmen, and at every nuance the music emulates the ensuing tragic tale.
So why does The Wreckers matter today? Director Thaddeus Strassberger, who stages the work,  lends clarity to the subject. "The themes of mass hysteria and populist justice should find powerful echoes in today's world events." In fact the opera address issues with profound resonance for audiences today.
    With Bard's reputation for reviving important operas it is no wonder that opera lovers and the curious cultural mavens went up to Annandale-on-Hudson to see this work by a Victorian-born Englishwoman, who at her time was was recognized as "the greatest female composer of the 19th and early 20th centuries."    
 Mark, Neal Cooper and Thirza,  Katharine Goeldner
It's a great folkloric story.that provided Smyth with the inspiration for her third and finest opera. Composed to a libretto by her friend and Henry Brewster, The Wreckers (1902-1904) gives a glimpse into the lives of people in a Cornish village who use religion to justify plundering ships after bringing them to rocky shores by extinguishing the beacons. Pitted against the community is the preacher husband, baritone, Pastor Pascoe, portrayed by Louis Otey. His young wife Thirza, Katharine Goeldner demonstrates her mezzo-soprano coloratura virtuosity while her lover Mark, performed by English tenor Neal Cooper, provides robust interpretation in his role as the young fisherman. The  romantic controversy.includes Sky Ingram with her compelling, energetic presence and versatile soprano. Mark and Thirza conspire to save the ships by kindling secret beacons to guide the ships. The tragic fate of the lovers is sealed with a village tribunal and in a colossal operatic finale they are condemned to death in a sea-filled cave.Though the story is fictitious the existence of wreckers on the British Coast was a historical fact, in small, desperately poor villages.  Smyth's opera presents issues with profound resonance for audiences today.
Dame Ethel Mary Smyth
     By the way, Ethel Mary Smyth was not content to write parlor music, and set out to conquer the male-dominated worlds of the opera houses and concert halls as well. She became famous in cultural cognoscenti circles and when John Singer Sargent sketched a likeness of her Smyth herself explained: "I feel I must fight for (my music), because I want women to turn their minds to big and difficult jobs; not just to go on hugging the shore, afraid to put out to sea." Her published output encompassed six operas, a concert mass, a double concerto, a choral symphony, songs with piano, organ pieces and chamber music. She counted Tchaikovsky and Debussy as her many admirers.
     Smyth became a prominent member of the "Votes for Women:" movement, her involvement including a stint in prison and her composition "The March of the Women" which was adopted as the suffragettes' anthem. Accolades and recognition were her due and in 1922 she was she was made a Dame of the British Empire..
   Ta Ta Darlings!!! The Summerscape Coach: $40 round trip transportation from Manhattan to Bard is available for the August 2nd performance.      
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