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Dark British Operas Brighten New York Summer Festivals
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Dark British Operas Brighten New York Summer Festivals

Picture of Patricia Contino
Updated: 12 December 2015
This summer has been a good one for British opera in New York. At Bard SummerScape, college president and festival music director Leon Botstein presented Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers (1906) and Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival staged George Benjamin’s Written on the Skin (2012). Interest in the older obscure work and the newer, universally acclaimed one confirmed there is a local audience for ‘new’ opera.
Neal Cooper (Mark) in Ethyl Smyth's The Wreckers | © Cory Weaver
Neal Cooper (Mark) in Ethyl Smyth’s The Wreckers | © Cory Weaver

Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) was a prolific composer, conductor and memoirist. In 1903, her Der Wald (The Forest) became the first opera — Kaija Saariaho’s L’ Amour de loin is the next in 2016 — written by a woman to be performed at the Metropolitan Opera. Best known for the Suffragist anthem ‘March for Women’ (1911), her major works include the ‘Mass in D’ (1891) and The Wreckers (1906). Her neglect is troubling and most likely stems from the emergence of Sir Benjamin Britten as the preeminent opera composer of the post-World War II era or the usual sexism in the arts. Fortunately, Smyth found a true listener in Dr. Botstein, who first conducted The Wreckers in concert in 2007.

The performance begins with a quote from Dame Ethel projected on the curtain stating that while The Wreckers‘ plot is fictitious, remote British coastal villages made their living deliberately ‘wrecking’ ships by not lighting beacons guiding them to safety. What follows is wild music of a storm at sea. Director Thaddeus Strassberger’s staging from the overture to the drowning of two protagonists in the final scene matched Dame Ethel’s chaos. The 18th-century Cornish inhabitants hauled in their plunder, fought each other for it and murdered the crew. At the end of the wet night, their preacher Pascoe (Louis Otey) blesses them for a job well done. Standing alongside him is wife Thirza (Katherine Goeldner), who looks for her love Mark (Neal Cooper). His younger female congregants, including Avis (Sky Ingram), similarly distract Pascoe. Avis is in love with Mark, but the tenor only desires the baritone’s wife. Thirza and Mark are guilty of something else: setting fires warning ships of the rocky coastline.

The most striking aspect of The Wreckers is that it is unapologetic. Smyth’s villagers are savage religious fanatics living among moldy crates. Their sighting of a ship at the end of Act 1 incites a vocal Lord of the Flies. The rivalry between Thirza and Avis is vicious. With both parts written for mezzo-soprano, the traditional bad girls of opera, they bring out the worst in each other. When she sings of her rival’s blood flowing, Avis kills a large rat with her bare hands and places it in Thirza’s basket, which the other woman calmly throws away. Then before dying with Mark for their ‘crime,’ she rejects Pascoe’s forgiveness, declaring that she never loved him.

After hearing one composition, it is hard to ‘rate’ Smyth. The Wreckers never lags. Her orchestration is fantastic, particularly the haunting theme indicating the rising tide; however, her predisposition to Richard Wagner is strong. Mark’s aria explaining his actions and the two duets he sings with Thirza, equating death as the ultimate orgasmic act, are similar to those in Wagner’s own tragic Cornish love story, Tristan und Isolde (1859). Still, Smyth was not the only one influenced by Wagner: Claude Debussy’s only opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s last, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (premiering the same year as The Wreckers), are meditations on love and death.

Therefore, it would be worth hearing more of her music.

Certainly, Bard made a passionate case for her and The Wreckers. Dr. Botstein, the ASO and the singers’ enthusiasm for it spread to the sold-out audience. The two mismatched couples, especially Sky Ingram’s vengeful Avis, were excellent. The chorus was a greedy, sanctimonious multi-headed monster. Credit must also go to Erhard Rom for providing a perfectly ugly world for them to live in.

Chances are if Ethel Smyth’s ‘Wreckers’ found a book, they’d toss it back in the ocean. Not so in George Benjamin’s Written on the Skin, where they are delicate, coveted objects. The ‘skin that never dies’ is the vellum of the earliest book pages — and how spirituality, sexuality and knowledge imprint one’s soul.

Benjamin (b. 1960), Mostly Mozart’s Composer-In-Residence, is among a handful of living classical composers whose work is frequently performed and popular. Now in its 49th season, Mostly Mozart is not afraid to program beyond summertime classical pops to make valid connections between its namesake and other composers. Securing Written on the Skin’s original 2012 Aix-en-Provence Festival production, directed by Katie Mitchell with baritone Christopher Purves and soprano Barbara Hannigan recreating their original roles and the bonus of Alan Gilbert conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, for its New York premiere is a major coup.

Both Mozart and Benjamin were child prodigies. Their librettists — poet/professor Lorenzo Da Ponte and playwright Martin Crimp — were not afraid to experiment with plot structure. Da Ponte and Mozart revolutionized the art form; frequent collaborators Benjamin and Crimp received a commission for 2018 from The Royal Opera House.

Benjamin’s music sounds nothing like the older composer. Had it sounded ‘pretty’ for notoriously rich and/or conservative audiences, this opera would not have become the critical and popular success it has in a less than three-year period. His music is dark, sad, and sophisticated.

Written on the Skin’s single act and three scenes take place between heaven and earth. Vicki Mortimer’s set is an opera-within-an-opera, with a multi-level backstage area for Heaven and Earth being the 12th century Provençal estate of the wealthy Protector (Christopher Purves) and his wife Agnès (Barbara Hannigan). The Angels are not like the one weeping at Mozart’s Vienna graveside. Dressed as the stage crew, they ensure the story unfolds without deviation by positioning the unwilling singers in the tragic love triangle in place. They also send one (Tim Mead) to embody the Boy artist designing the book paying homage to both God and the Protector. The Master and Mistress fall in love with him.

Future productions may well show the Boy’s illuminated manuscript. The most wondrous aspect of seeing Written on the Skin in its first staging is that the audience must use its imagination. The Angels are specific in their tasks but Crimp’s libretto offers only essentials. What is clear is that the Protector’s desire for immortality in ‘our rightful place…in Paradise’ empowers the illiterate Agnès, who now wants to ‘see’ the word for ‘love.’

All three leads were outstanding. The singing for Purvis and Hannigan is not melodious but character-driven. Neither is likable, which is as it should be. Hannigan is a major singer/actress. Benjamin wrote the role of the Boy for a countertenor — the perfect choice for a heavenly creature in a young human body — and Mead successfully balanced both.

However, the loudest cheers were for the composer and conductor Alan Gilbert. The current New York Philharmonic Music Director will no doubt continue conducting known or new operas once he leaves his post.

Neither The Wreckers nor Written on the Skin are fading summer memories; The American Symphony Orchestra plans to make Smyth’s opera available for downloading in the near future. Written on the Skin is on DVD and streaming on Amazon and Medici.tv.

By Patricia Contino

Patricia Contino received her MFA from The New School Writing Program. She uses vacation time either at performances in other cities, The University of Iowa Writing Festival, or very long nights at the Metropolitan Opera. The lifelong NJ resident and fangirl is the administrator for Columbia University’s Masters of Bioethics Program.