From Summer Opera…an Answer to the Opera Houses’ Predicament?
Permit me to indulge in a one-sided argument…or a rant, as I believe it’s called in the blogging world—which is not ours at New York Arts and The Berkshire Review!
Opera in the United States is particularly unsettled at the moment, if not in trouble. Both audiences and sources of funding are on a downward curve, although the better-managed companies seem to be coping. The biggest beast of all, The Metropolitan Opera, compromised by the bad judgement of its General Director, Peter Gelb, is the most worrisome of all. The next season may well reveal whether we can expect it to continue in anything like its traditional grandeur. While the Met doesn’t seem to be doing very much at all to remedy its dire emergencies of finances and attendance, as Gelb voices his resignation to an inevitable decline into irrelevance and failure, management in general seems to be reaching for the usual stale solutions: more aggressive, populist marketing, discounted tickets, user-friendly “educational” programs, and all the rest. While there’s nothing new in the occasional production of a neglected work with popular appeal, like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Prince Igor or a twentieth-century opera, like Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, or a new opera, even a commissioned premiere, the vast majority of what major urban opera companies offer comes from a narrow group of “classics” which have taken over the repertory, as money-conscious managers grew more and more cautious over the course of the twentieth century, especially following the Second World War. The superstar singer formula seems to be wearing thin, as artists with potential for that become all but impossible to find, and the voices of the current attractions go ragged. Another ploy, eagerly embraced by Gelb, is the “innovative” production, which usually arouses nothing but hostility among American opera-goers, who are conservative in their tastes, to say the least.
Opera companies have encouraged, even created this lazy, mindless attitude, and they only have themselves to blame, if audiences have gotten sick of the endless stream of Aidas and La Bohèmes. Before the War, especially in Europe, it was far more common, actually prevalent, for people to attend opera as theater, and this experience was not devoid of compelling stories and characters, or even of ideas. The contrary force of opera as a social ritual, somewhat diminished by the waning of the aristocracy, gained new life in the new world, as the Metropolitan Opera above all, catered to an establishment of socialites who wanted above all an ongoing routine, enlivened by prestigious singers, at the expense of the coordination and building of coherent performances. The demise of Oscar Hammerstein I’s Manhattan Opera Company, which tried to create just that, at the hands of the Met, established the dominance of opera as ritual as the American norm, and it continues today, with many of the socialites replaced by well-heeled tourists.
What if an opera houses were to emulate the good people who are quitting smoking or swearing off junk food (and opera as it is today in this country represents largely a junk food culture) by going cold turkey on the seedy old war horses and present a season composed entirely of forgotten masterpieces, or near-masterpieces? What if this were to catch on? The very nature of opera would change, and instead of resembling a church service or a baseball game, opera would be more of an event, a happening, something like…well…theater.
Small opera companies, now that the New York City Opera is gone, have been filling the void with impressive success during the main season, but we have to wait for the summer to enjoy the most ambitious efforts in restoring neglected repertoire, above all at Caramoor and Bard Summerscape, which in recent years have presented one example after another of operas which deserve to have a life in the repertory of major urban houses—works which give audiences splendid music they haven’t heard before—at least as it should be—and theatrical values which are usually buried in spectacle rather than served by it.
Caramoor, under the direction of Will Crutchfield, has been enlightening audiences since 1997 with historically-informed concert performances of bel canto operas by the great composers in the genre, Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini, while occasionally venturing into Verdi. Some of these are rare in any form, while others are well-established in the repertoire, but in editions far from the original intended by the composer and the house that commissioned it.
Music by Gaetano Donizetti
Libretto by Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaëz, with additions by Eugène Scribe, based on the play Le comte de Comminges by Baculard d’Arnaut
Bel Canto at Caramoor
July 11, 2015
Orchestra of St. Luke’s
Will Crutchfield, conductor
Leonore – Clémentine Margaine, mezzo-soprano
Fernand – Santiago Ballerini, tenor
Alphonse – Stephen Powell, baritone
Baldassare – Daniel Mobbs, bass-baritone
This year’s bel canto production, Donizetti’s La Favorite, which he wrote for the Paris Opera, gained some currency in an Italian version which was so heavily cut by the censors, that its plot was virtually indecipherable. After a few performances at the Met between 1895 and 1905, La Favorita disappeared from the repertory, to be revived in 1978 as a vehicle for Shirley Verrett and Luciano Pavarotti, subsequently to disappear once again. Since two or three of the arias have been popular with singers as recital numbers, the Italian title occupies more space in our memories than its actual performance history deserves. La Favorite‘s situation and interrelationship of characters is rather interesting, involving the unhappy love of a young novice and the Spanish king’s mistress, and the music is memorable, especially as correctly and most beautifully sung by Clémentine Margaine as Leonore, Santiago Ballerini as Fernand, Stephen Powell as King Alphonse, and Daniel Mobbs as, Baldassare, Fernand’s Father Superior.
Even more compelling were the Verdi performances of the past few years. Don Carlo, in its Italian adaptation, entered the repertory only in the 1950s, deservedly, as an overlooked masterpiece, but many awkward details fall into place in the original French version, showing that Verdi was a genius in writing for French. Last year’s Rigoletto, with some bel canto elements restored and impeccably sung, showed what a great dramatic work it is and restored my interest in the old warhorse—something no number of gimmicky stagings and overhyped superstars could achieve.
One of the high points of the full program for La Favorite was Will Crutchfield’s lecture/presentation of early recordings of bel canto arias and duets by French singers who were trained in the same tradition Donizetti knew. A level of vocal solidity, precision in ornament, and good taste which is pretty much a thing of the past, except for initiatives like Caramoor, was only what conservatories expected of these outstanding, but largely forgotten singers. An annual visit to Caramoor is enough to make the kind of belting of the upper register and consequent fracture of the melodic line, as one generally hears in the major houses, unbearable.
Richard Wagner arranged some arias from La Favorite in 1841, while he was at work on Der fliegende Holländer. There is something of a love-death theme in the opera, which dominates the final scene, when the title character dies and her lover dies to the world, i.e. returns to his monastery. His involvement in this opera may well have stoked the furnace for Tristan some fifteen to twenty years later. That final scene of Leonore’s death may have meant as much as his philosophical lucubrations. But more about this solemn subject later.
Bard is rather about first-rate staged performances of neglected works from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some of those performed in recent years are for the connoisseur, but others could be viable in the mainstream repertory, for example, any opera by Zemlinsky or Schreker, Szymanowski’s King Roger, Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Chabrier’s Le roi malgré lui, Taneyev’s Oresteia, and now Ethel Smyth’s rip-roaring tale of maritime criminality, The Wreckers. Zemlinsky and Schreker achieved great successes in Germany during the years around the Great War, a time of particular creativity in opera and open-minded enthusiasm among audiences. Our contemporary repertoire retains only a few works by Richard Strauss and Puccini from that era. Les Huguenots represents the mature phase of French grand opera, which faded from the stage of the Met in the late 1920s, in part because of the expense of retaining the large complement of first-rate singers it required. Taneyev’s Oresteia and Szymanowski’s King Roger are dramatically very strong, profound, and enriched with music of the highest quality by indisputably great composers. The Wreckers offers an exciting, colorful, idiosyncratic book and extremely effective, often beautiful and moving music. All of these could hold the attention of the most casual or jaded audiences. If I have left out Schumann’s very beautiful Genoveva and Weber’s Euryanthe, it is because they present problems which might not be effectively solved in the hurly burly of a standard opera season. Just imagine if Mary Zimmerman got her hands on either of them!
Music by Carl Maria von Weber
Libretto by Helmine von Chézy
American Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Leon Botstein, music director
Richard B. Fisher Center, Bard College
Kevin Newbury, Director
Victoria Tzykun, Set Designer
Jessica Jahn, Costume Designer
D. M. Wood, Lighting Designer
Dave Bova, Hair and Makeup Designer
Ellie Dehn – Euryanthe
William Burden – Adolar
Wendy Bryn Harmer – Eglantine
Ryan Kuster – Lysiart
Peter Volpe – King Ludwig
Euryanthe, for example, after an initial success over the first few nights, eventually failed in its brief premiere run (1823) because of its apparent formlessness and length. Weber’s collaboration with Helmine von Chézy on the libretto was difficult and resulted in a stilted patchwork of scenes, which, most disastrously, turned out to be very difficult to follow. Successive cuts only made things worse. Euryanthe did not entirely disappear from German opera houses, however, and in recent years it has enjoyed a reputation, supported by an excellent recording under Marek Janowski, as a flawed masterpiece, which indeed it is. Is it perhaps pointless to discuss Euryanthe‘s rarity in this county, since Der Freischütz, Weber’s most popular work, has long disappeared from the repertoire here. In fact Euryanthe was more popular than Freischütz at the Met during its early years. Its last performance was in February 1915, with Frieda Hempel and Johannes Sembach in the principal roles, conducted by Arturo Toscanini.
At Bard, Maestro Botstein and his staff originally pondered using an adaptation once conducted by Mahler at the Vienna Staatsoper, but in the end they decided to produce the original version. The brilliant director Kevin Newbury found the key to making the opera understandable and credible. Without going into Euryanthe‘s rather involved plot, I can say that Newbury decided to act out the backstory during the overture and in this way provided a signpost and explanation for what happened on stage. This material, which is told with insufficient emphasis and clarity in Act I, emphasizes—entirely appropriately—a supernatural subplot of a Scott-like nature, which holds the action together for the audience as they experience the opera. Problem solved. Newbury’s solution did not make a dramatic gem of Euryanthe, but it made it work on stage—a feat the several revisors of the opera have failed to achieve. There were also many smart details in the stage action and the combination of different scenes in one set, to enhance both drama and continuity. The audience was thrilled by the dramatic and purely musical qualities of Weber’s great score, and the opera was a complete success.
In Act III, scene 1, described as a rocky mountain gorge in the stage direction, Euryanthe and her at that time estranged husband Adolar meet in a wild, entirely natural environment which recalls the the middle part of King Lear, where Shakespeare strips his characters, good and evil, of all the supports and comforts of civilization. Here Adolar prepares to kill his wife because of her supposed infidelity. This creates a powerful moment of truth in the opera which came through well in the Bard production. At the time I thought Kevin Newbury might have elaborated the point a bit more, but in retrospect I think I was being self-indulgent in a way Mr. Newbury had the intelligence and modesty to resist.
Victoria Tzykun’s complex but theatrically economical sets, which helped the flow of the story by combining different locations, benefitted from an especially clever idea of decorating the castle walls with landscapes, which could be transformed into real landscapes. There were some awkward moments in the transformation, where I thought that a bit more effort and expense could have produced a better effect.
The American Symphony Orchestra played with energy and lyric fervor throughout. Ensemble was occasionally a little shaky, but not enough for anyone but a close listener to notice, certainly not enough to impair the beauty and flow of the music. Weber’s eloquent wind solos received especially loving and expert attention from the ASO winds, and the horns were absolutely superb in their elaborate part in the hunting scene in Act III. Virtuosic choral singing from the Bard Festival Chorus under James Bagwell and an outstanding cast completed a reading of Euryanthe which presented pretty much the best possible case for it—and a thoroughly convincing one.
One prevailing criticism of the much-admired Janowski recording was Jessye Norman’s performance in the title role—not because of any shortcoming in her venerable abilities, but because the scale and richness of her voice and the grandeur of her acting gave her performance a Wagnerian quality that seemed inappropriate to many. She was miscast. At Bard, the widely-admired soprano Ellie Dehn gave a subtly nuanced, detailed portrayal of a naive young wife who went from convent straight into marriage with an older man, a soldier, whom she loves without reserve. Her voice was bright and sharply focused, but warmed by a burnished depth she used to great advantage in her interpretation. Dehn is known for the intelligence and penetration of her characterizations, and she lived up to her reputation in every way. If the opera were performed more often, I could imagine her making the role one of the mainstays of her repertoire. William Burden sang her husband Adolar with the agility of a warm lyric tenor combined with heroic weight and fullness. Wendy Bryn Harmer used her expansive, sensuous soprano voice to portray the treacherous Eglantine with a seductiveness as dangerous to women as to men, and Ryan Kuster combined bright and dark qualities in his voice for a villainous, if conflicted Lysiart. Peter Volpe sang an elegant, handsomely-voiced King Ludwig.
All of the Bard opera productions have been important in different ways, but Euryanthe stood out, since it rewrote musical history in bringing to life on stage a fully convincing performance of Weber’s greatest opera. In seeing it staged and performed on this level, I could fully understand how Wagner could not have written Lohengrin without it. Historically Weber, in his desire to go beyond his hugely successful Singspiel Der Freischütz, with a German through-composed opera, provided a missing link to Wagner’s early works.
The performance is available for download through the American Symphony Orchestra’s examplary recording program.
Ethel Smyth (1858–1944)
The Wreckers (1902-04)
American Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Leon Botstein, music director
Directed by Thaddeus Strassberger
Set design by Erhard Rom
Costume design by Kaye Voyce
Lighting design by JAX Messenger
Projection Design by Hannah Wasileski
Pascoe – Louis Otey
Thirza – Katharine Goeldner
Mark – Neal Cooper
Avis – Sky Ingram
Tallan – Dennis Petersen
Lawrence – Michael Mayes
Jack – Kendra Broom
Harvey – Peter Van Derick
July 24* & 31 at 7:30 pm
July 26*, July 29 & Aug 2* at 2 pm
July 26 at 12 pm
My first thought about The Wreckers was that it could be highly successful in the repertory of a major opera house, one capable of giving it the full-scale staging it deserves—and which it certainly received at Bard, with the help of the sophisticated lighting and projections provided by JAX Messenger and Hannah Wasileski. It is without a doubt one of the most exciting operas, in the Hollywood sense, that one could show, and it is all supported psychologically in the intense conflicts that energize the story: conflicts in a small, isolated community with a precarious livelihood, conflicts in religion, conflicts in an unhappy marriage, conflicts in romance.
One is immediately struck be the peculiar religious beliefs of this coastal village in Cornwall. The townsfolk, urged on by their leader, the Reverend Pascoe, believe that their primary industry—that of luring ships to run aground on their rocky shores by extinguishing the lighthouse, murdering the crew, and looting the cargo—is blessed by God. It is nothing other than His gift to them as His Chosen People, and it is impious not to accept God’s grace. We learn of this through an extended choral scene of mixed hymn-singing, gossip, and complaining. This is all based historical fact. The young John Wesley tried to root out just these beliefs as a young minister in Cornwall.
The village has not had any luck in their wrecking in some time. Food is scarce—but not beer, it seems—and the mood is bad. Pascoe urges them to keep the faith, while some suspicion circulates that he may be lighting beacon fires to warn off the passing vessels. The perpetrators are in fact Pascoe’s twenty-two-year-old wife, Thirza, and her lover, Mark, a young fisherman. They are devoted to each other and to doing what the rest of us would consider to be doing the right thing. Mark has had a previous flirtation with Avis, a hot-blooded teenage girl, whose powerful libido has become concentrated in her hatred of her rival. In a jealous rage she throttles—unsuccessfully—then eviscerates a rat she catches by the docks. This is not spelled out as action in the stage directions, but Thaddeus Strassburger has Avis perform the grisly deed as she sings her “Rat Song” and then pitch the bloody carcass on the pile of clothes Thirza is mending over by the church. She brushes it off in cool disgust. In Act II Thirza and Mark meet late at night to build up their bonfire and enjoy a tryst together. Singing of love and death, they finally agree to flee Pascoe and the town together. They escape the mob of townspeople only by a hair’s breadth. Pascoe is caught instead, inflamed by Avis, they seize the minister and take him off to stand trial in a cave by the water. This takes place in Act III. As Pascoe faces condemnation, the lovers arrive and insist to an incredulous court that they are the real culprits. They are truly hard-pressed to establish their guilt, especially as Avis gives Mark an alibi, claiming that he spent the night with her. Eventually they are condemned and bound in the cave, where the tide, as it rises, drowns them, as they sing of love and death:
Turn on me those eyes full of sea and sky where in death undying love will shine!
Sweet heart, all is vain save thy love and mine!
Now we two, O bliss, may die together!
Soon mouth to mouth we two shall be sleeping, as so oft we longed in vain to sleep!
Hear the bridal song, see the wild waves leap, herald of the kiss that ends no more!
Sun, light our dying! Sea on thy breast bear us!
Our last ecstasy thy embrace, O sea!
There were supertitles over the stage, but, thanks to the superb diction of the principles and the Bard Festival Chorus, and the shallow set, most of the words were understandable. For the sample I have quoted, you may think that this is a dubious virtue, but the mannered English words were well-knit to the music, occasionally recalling Richard Wagner’s idiosyncrasies of word-order and syntax in Tristan and the Ring. Usually I try to attend the Bard opera twice or more, but this time only one performance was possible. My superficial impression was that the references to love and death were callow, high-Wagnerite superficialities, but there was nothing callow or superficial about Ethel Smyth or her librettist Henry B. Brewster. A thoughtful consideration of the libretto, admittedly less than a literary masterpiece, reveals a poigant moral import to this Tristan-borrowing. Thirza and Mark, as high-principalled lovers who have, in their love, transgressed the strictest principals of their community—not in adultery, but by attacking the murderous theft supported by local religion, have transcended the moral plane which would allow them to live in this society. (They decided not to flee to a happy life abroad, but to stay and be condemned.) Their morally enlightened defiance of social norms make life impossible. Death by trial and execution are the inevitable result of the lovers’ principles and actions. This socio-ethical concept of love and death is radically different from Wagner’s metaphysical view, but it is consciously thought out. Still there is some communality with Tristan and Isolde’s adultery and Siegmund and Sieglinde’s incest—both of which had a wide impact on late Victorian and Edwardian mores, as we know from many sources, not least Ibsen. The role of love in the Ring and Brünnhilde’s final conflagration are the best analogies to Brewster and Smyth’s views. The sad story of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment and death as an outcast in Paris was still fresh, although Smyth was at best a limited admirer and Brewster positively detested him. (In a letter to Smyth dated August 8, 1892, quoted in Smyth’s memoir, As Time Went On, p. 81, he said “I am glad you recognise Wilde’s cleverness and that he does know about art. He is odious; such a little personality! but one must be just. He knows; and he can write.. . .” ) On my single hearing, I also noted the plentiful, obvious quotations from the Ring, Tristan, and other works of Wagner. At the time these sounded like faults, but, as I listened, I realized that Smyth was not quoting Wagner from a lack of inspiration or resourcefulness, she intended them as signs that, in 1906, she was writing as a modern composer. It was clear to me that she could have expressed herself just as well or better using her own musical language. And there is meaning in these allusions, for example, when she conjures Alberich. Although she was deeply moved by her 1892 visit to Bayreuth, she claimed to be no worshipper of Wagner. However, she clearly recognized him as the musical and theatrical standard-bearer of her generation.
These reflections, derived entirely from my experience at the performance, suggest that the strange events in the Cornish coastal village have a larger import and that the creators were no ordinary people. Their relationship, an intimate one which extended over quite a few years until Brewster’s death, was also anything but ordinary.
Ethel Smyth at the time of her death in 1944 had been a well-known figure in English society for many years, but not for her music, rather for her social position, her unconventional way of life, and her lively, frank, and stylish memoirs. Sir Thomas Beecham, who conducted The Wreckers at His Majesty’s Theatre in 1909, was something of a champion of her music, however, and he arranged a festival in her honor in the early 1930s.
Smyth’s father had made something of himself in the military in India, and she was born, in 1858, into wealth and connections. To her father’s dismay she began musical studies early on and desired a professional career in music. Despite his objections, she went to Leipzig to study at the conservatory at the age of nineteen. Disappointed, she left to study privately with Heinrich von Herzogenberg, a gifted pupil of Brahms. She wrote chamber music, masses, and orchestral works, but her primary ambition was to write opera, and she wrote several lighter and smaller works, including the one-act Der Wald, which to this day remains the only opera by a woman composer to have been produced by the Metropolitan Opera.
Smyth was emotionally and sexually attracted to women throughout her life, and she had many intense affairs with women, beginning with Herzogenberg’s wife, Lisl. This led to an introduction to Lisl’s sister Julia, who lived in Florence with her husband, Henry Brewster, an expatriate American. Ethel found a deep connection with him, which was reciprocated, and he suggested to Julia that they live as a ménage à trois—much to her horror, in spite of their previous agreement to live in an open marriage. Ethel and Harry separated for some years, until Julia’s death, when they reconnected in earnest. They never married, never lived together for more than limited periods, and her lesbian affairs continued, but this one relationship with a man was a deep connection, which in fact lived on in her after his death in 1908. As late as 1928, she composed a large-scale setting of one of Brewster’s metaphysical works, The Prison, and he looms large in her memoirs. Their collaboration on the development of The Wreckers was the fruit of their powerful intimacy.
Harry Brewster was himself an extraordinary person. The son of a New England dentist, who became wealthy working in high circles in St. Petersburg, then later in Paris, Henry Bennet Brewster was born in Paris, and French was his primary language, closely followed by English. He was a proud American citizen throughout his life, although he spent less than two years of it in the United States. When he married Julia, they settled in Florence, where, at his wife’s advice, he spent a decade in quasi-seclusion training himself as a philosopher. Apart from the stage works he wrote for Ethel Smyth, most of his writings are philosophical. And The Wreckers should be understood as a philosophical opera. 1
His manner and conversation made a deep impression on whoever met him, including Henry James and Maurice Baring. Ethel Smyth maintained friendships with highly placed people in English society throughout her life, some of whom were rather conventional, who seem to have been more shocked by her open, if occasional, cohabitation with Brewster than her lesbian affairs.
Brewster wrote his libretto in French, which was translated into German for the premiere, which took place in Leipzig in 1906. For the 1909 London production, Smyth herself worked with some helpers, hiring the prominent literary translator, Alma Strettell, to translate the arias, or songs, as she called them. Since this all occurred in the wake of Harry’s passing, which affected her deeply, we should also understand the opera and this English production, which she had to fund privately, in this light. Leon Botstein in his passionate program essay (available here) stresses that The Wreckers is an extraordinarily serious work which brings moral philosophy and politics together in a powerful statement which is especially relevant today, in our world which is so violently roiled by religious movements in the United States, Israel, and the Muslim world.
Smyth, as she began to put her life together after Harry’s death, at first reluctantly, became engaged in the suffrage movement, serving two months’ hard labor for throwing a brick through a cabinet minister’s window.
The Wreckers was not a success in its time. Maestro Botstein mentions several reasons in his essay, for one, English prejudices against their own abilities to write good serious operas, secondly the reluctance of Edwardians to take a woman seriously as a composer, especially of a big, unladylike opera. It might also be added that the first productions in Leipzig and Prague were hastily prepared and of poor quality. The Wreckers fared much better under Sir Thomas, but he personally felt that it was unlikely to receive a satisfactory production, because he knew of no soprano or tenor who could bring the requisite intensity to the roles of Thirza and Mark.
…which brings us to the Bard production. We can well ask whether Sir Thomas’ adynaton was finally achieved. The answer ? Almost. Ethel may even have been willing to pass around some of those cigars she was so fond of. Brewster’s characters are complex. All are drawn in different, sometimes opposing directions. Pascoe is at least sincere in his benightedness, and he deeply loves his young wife. Avis is capable of intense efforts, including the seduction of the tavern-keeper’s 15-year-old son, to realize what she believes is right, including saving Mark’s life—and she is passionate. Thirza knows what is right—at least what we the audience consider to be right—and she hates the villagers for it. Her righteousness inspires disgust and fury without pity or empathy—understandably so, given her subjection to her middle-aged husband, their leader. Mark has acquired some serious baggage in Avis, more than his complacent abandonment of her is ready to deal with. He has a callous side, although he sincerely feels sorry for the girl he has spurned.
The singers and their director understood this, and it came through in their performances. The London-based Australian soprano, Sky Ingram, as Avis, above all, created a character who was hotter and more intense than life, an unforgettable star turn…striking with her flowing red hair. Her bright voice filled the hall, always agile enough to negotiate her often athletic lines. Louis Otey, an American bass-baritone, went deep into Pascoe’s pained soul, conflicted as it was between his convictions and his conjugal love. His sumptuous dark voice recalled George London, not to mention his tenebrous, brooding manner.
Neal Cooper, a South Londoner, brought a true Heldentenor voice, and a muscular presence to Mark, the young fisherman. Smyth’s writing, which was perhaps more Wagnerian than she was prepared to admit, required every bit of his capacious voice—and a very attractive one at that, one which can provide the nuance for Mark’s more interior, lyric passages. Cooper is still relatively young, at the beginning of a career, with a repertoire which includes both Melot and Tristan, Siegfried (in concert excerpts), Erik, Radames, and Thibeault, in the Royal Opera House production of Verdi’s Les vêpres siciliennes, but he was perhaps not quite youthful enough for Mark. His interpretation, to my mind, could have brought out more of the character’s boyish, impulsive naïveté. He excelled in his musically and psychologically rich scenes in the second act, recalling the late Jon Vickers and suggesting that he has a great Peter Grimes in him. Katharine Goeldner, yet one more large-voiced singer on stage, brought a deep, if somewhat generalized feeling to the part of Thirza. Her full, sensuous mezzo-soprano was always beautifully produced and followed Smyth’s phrasing in a most musical way, and her espression was emotional and intense. Smyth intended the tessitura of the part, I imagine, to express sensuality and vulnerability, but it was hard for Goeldner to avoid a certain matronly quality. Thirza is meant to be twenty-two years old, which of course makes her vastly more mature than Avis in her own eyes, but she is still young. Goeldner’s costuming, Strassburger’s direction, and her own acting and singing, could have brought out more of this quality in Thirza, both in her sexual fire and in her moral rage. The smaller parts, all fully characterized and filled out by Smyth, were universally sung and acted at the highest level. Dennis Petersen, as Tallan the inn-keeper, brought a dram of good cheer to the evening, winning warm applause, and Kendra Broom, as young Jack, Avis’ potential victim, gave a full, lively characterization as the young lad. Michael Mayes as the lighthouse-keeper Lawrence and Peter van Derick as his brother-in-law Lawrence also gave strong, handsomely sung performances.
Once again, as in King Roger, Oresteia, and Euryanthe, Bard worked miracles in filling a difficult, unconventional cast. Leon Botstein kept the pace active and urgent, but kept the textures transparent and the lines clear, so that we could hear what we needed of Smyth’s rich, often complex writing. The American Symphony Orchestra gave him all of their considerable energy and musicality. Both benefitted from an earlier concert performance at Avery Fisher Hall in 2007. Smyth would have been well pleased by their service, with a whole box of her best Havanas for Maestro Botstein, which I’m sure he would appreciate. On this first hearing it struck me that Smyth wrote—in The Wreckers at least—in medium-length, assymmetrical phrases, by no means telegraphic, like Beethoven and Brahms, but not fully melodic, like Wagner, Strauss…and Elgar! As we get more familiar with Ethel Smyth’s idiom, we may begin to see as an antidote to Elgar—tougher, less predictable, less public and polite. We may even begin to see and Ivesian quality in her occasional awkwardness. Let’s hope her time has come…as she herself predicted!
Botstein had very good reasons for presenting the opera in English. However, Brewster wrote the original in French, and this has never been produced. It is likely to be an improvement over the English translation, and even American audiences may be happy to be relieved of its peculiarities, bearing in mind that both Ethel Smyth and Alma Strettell had considerable literary abilities.
The atmospheric, grungy look of the village, the combined achievement of Erhard Rom (set designer), Kaye Voyce (costumes), JAX Messenger (lighting), and Hannah Wasileski (projections). The magnificent projections were among the most impressive I have seen, including some marvelous animated rats. Although the set was shallow—for compelling dramatic and musical reasons—the floating forms suggested docks, crates, and the buildings of the village successively. I could actually smell the tar, the hemp, and the brackish seawater.
This magnificent performance of The Wreckers amply proved that the opera would richly entertain the audiences of many major opera houses. Unlike Salome, it still has the power to shock, and its radical message is indeed more relevant than ever. Brewster and Smyth may have seen a microcosm the British Empire and the Church of England in their nameless Cornish village, as well as all the other aspects of Victorian life observed by Samuel Butler, Thomas Hardy, and Lytton Strachey, among many others. The Empire lives on in only a few tiny pockets of the world today (not that it was all bad!), but greed, domination, bigotry, and murder live on.
Since I’ve been preaching about the reform of opera programming and the future of the art, I should mention another neglected opera, similar in subject, moral import, and technique to The Wreckers, which cries out to be shown together with it—Howard Hanson’s Merry Mount, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in 1933, the last of the twenty-five-year string of new American operas commissioned annually by the Met’s great director, Giulio Gatti-Casazza. It received a handsome production, although it was in the middle of the Great Depression, and the Met had gone through a financial crisis and had recently been reorgainized as a non-profit. With the next season, Gatti-Casazza and his program of supporting contemporary American opera were gone, and frugality reigned. Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior were able to fill the house with their Rings and Tristans (often severely cut) and kept the enterprise afloat. Merry Mount disappeared, although it had been a success with the public. The critics were less pleased, some of them offended by the sharply negative light in which the librettist cast our Puritan founders. Richard L. Stokes, inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story, “The Maypole of Merry Mount,” had written it on spec. In his search for a composer, he found Howard Hanson, by that time established as a symphonist and teacher, who had not had much experience with opera. And Merry Mount was is only opera. Critics have complained about Hanson’s emphasis on the chorus and his writing for solo voice, but the opera goes over very well in performance, and one can only admire Hanson’s choral writing. As in The Wreckers and Peter Grimes, the chorus is a major character in the opera.
Like The Wreckers, Merry Mount is derived from a historical situation: Mount Wollaston, or Merry Mount, was a settlement founded by Thomas Morton (Devon, England 1578 – Maine 1647) on the site of modern Quincy, Massachussetts in 1624. While Morton was growing up, Devon (which coincidentally neigbors Cornwall to the east) was similarly considered a remote, barely governable place, where Catholic, High Church religious traditions lived on, as well as tolerance for the ancient British customs, which had lingered for centuries, characterized as “Merry England,” only since Henry VIII’s time subject to repression by protestant monarchs, prelates, and, above all, Puritans. Like his younger contemporary, William Blackstone, he was learned, High Anglican, and tolerant, which included treating the indigenous people with respect for their property and traditions. In his settlement he established the May Day traditions he grew up with in Devon with pagan elements he had learned about in this studies. This spring ritual included much drinking and licentiousness—in Morton’s mind a reward and release for the colonists’ hard work and survival of the harsh winter. This was of course deeply repellent to the Puritan colonists some thirty-five miles to the south in Plymouth. When the second, more elaborate, May Day “Revels of New Canaan” came around, the Plymouth Militia invaded Merry Mount, cut down the eighty-foot May Pole, and sent Morton to the stocks, a trial, and exile—which he barely survived.
This is the incident which inspired Hawthorne’s tale and Stokes’ libretto, in which an intense young Puritan preacher struggles with his libido, in the form of erotic dreams about the she-devil Astoreth. He sees the comely demon in an aristocratic lady from Merry Mount, to be performed by the same singer as Astoreth. Later, while the Puritans are pillaging the rival colony, he takes the lady into the forest, first to convert her from her wordly ways, secondly to have sex with him. When she rejects him, he attempts to rape her, but the lady’s fiancé intervenes. The preacher is rebuked for his conduct, then experiences a vision in which Lucifer appears, tries to tempt him with wealth and power, but only succeeds when he offers him the hand of Astoreth. Then the man of God signs the Devil’s Book and sings a love duet with Astoreth. In the last act, the preacher renounces God in public before the Puritans, who also get a glimpse of the devil’s mark on his forehead, much to their consternation. The curtain falls as he rushes into his church, which is of fire, dragging the noblewoman with him. In the course of this the Puritans have made enemies of the local Indians, and it was they who set fire to the Puritan settlement.
The themes of religious intolerance, hypocrisy, and a flawed minister in a small community compliment The Wreckers in a richly satisfying way, not to mention the affinities in handling the chorus and the rich orchestral scoring.
Merry Mount has been even more completely ignored than The Wreckers over the years, but in 2014 it received a meticulously prepared, vivid and energetic performance by the Rochester Philharmonic under Michael Christie, thrilling a capacity crowd at Carnegie Hall. By a lucky coincidence the admirable Andrew Rose of Pristine Classical discovered a long-forgotten live recording from 1955 with Hanson himself conducting forces from the Eastman School of Music. I didn’t find any reference to the recording in my researches following the Carnegie Hall performance. Thanks to Andrew’s vast knowledge of early recording techniques, its experimental stereo sound is impressive and provides the most effective way to enjoy the opera. There is also a live recording from the 1990s on Naxos with the Seattle Symphony under Gerard Schwarz.
Well, so much for my ideas about a new kind of opera season…I promise not to write about opera reform for at least a month or two!
- Another, longer passage from Henry Brewster’s letter quoted above (Ethel Smyth, As Time Went On…, pp. 79-81) sheds light on his intentions in The Wreckers and on their personal relations to it:
Here is Arthur Benson’s letter, with thanks. It is a good letter, notwithstanding the mistake your marginal note corrects most conclusively. It is quite true: his people are constitutional proselytisers ; they judge persons by ideals. They know the Father’s will ; and whoever does it, behold, that is their brother and their sister. People of the other temperament—ours I believe—judge ideals by persons. What those whom they love do, behold that surely is the Father’s will. What other means is there of knowing it, without taking one’s own brain as canon? I have more confidence in my sympathies than in my opinions ; and so have you, who are friends with an infidel ; they have more confidence in their opinions than in their instinctive affection and are ready to correct the latter by the former.
I recognise the fact and it quite agrees with the impression I had of the daughter : ‘New-England through and through’ as I told you ; and her brother speaks of the Puritan strain. But how her mother’s more fluid brain can accommodate itself to this temperament is obscure to me ; she must suffer much. Tell me, do you know any Christians besides yourself who are not of this temperament? (…) I told Mary Hunter at Aix that I considered your Christianity anomalous because you say of it: ‘It is the truth for me, of others I cannot speak.’ It occurs to me sometimes that herein may lie the value and great utility of something to which I am sadly refractory—ceremony and observances. As they have no meaning people need not disagree about them. They can stand for an act of the will, for an aspiration which we cannot put in words without beginning to snarl at one another.
Of course when I say that what those do whom we love is right, I mean this in the most general way, taking them all in all, though there may be points which we fail to understand or perchance dislike. But we could not turn away from them because they will not live as we may wish them to live, because we cannot draw them into our favourite fold. It is the Bensons who turn away from you, not you from them. I think A. B.’s advice is good. It cannot be changed for the present.
All this notwithstanding I think we ought to be very lenient towards those who cut us off from their good graces because we are not what they hoped we were ; not just like them.
It must be rather intoxicating, this identity of aim and of ways ; a mighty confirmation of one’s self; and the awaking from the dream must be bitter. I have never forgotten my brother’s disappointment when he discovered that his first friend—a Swedish boy—preferred mealy potatoes to waxy ones. I think he never quite regained his confidence in human nature. He was of the proselytising temperament and proudly scorned the admission that waxy potatoes might taste better to some palates. He dropped his friend ; and I as a younger brother and confidant was witness to his sorrow. This parable may be met by the haughty aphorism : ‘Virtue ain’t potatoes.’ Granted, but it is food—or nothing ; and we ought to be free to choose our diet. The only question is : Are we well fed or scrofulous? Thriving or puny ? And I take sympathy to simply accept the mystery as a sign of our ignorance. And if our sympathy goes out to others who reject it because of our different diet, that merely shows that they manage to thrive in spite of an intolerance which would kill us ; and all we can say is what Huss said to the old woman who threw sticks on his burning pile : ‘Sancta simplicitas !’ Enough. ↩