Retrospect Opera

Great British Operas On Record

The Boatswain’s Mate - The Recording
CDSarah Gavron, director of the film Suffragette (the historical drama starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw, and Meryl Streep) has written this generous endorsement:

I am delighted to support Retrospect Opera and their project to record Ethel Smyth's fourth opera, The Boatswain’s Mate.  It is about time that this very enjoyable work was revived, a century after the first production. It is an inspiring example of the work of a female composer and is conducted by the wonderful and talented Odaline de la Martinez. As the director of Suffragette, I am particularly excited that this recording follows the film's release. I hope many more people will support this project.
                                                                                                                    Sarah Gavron

We are indeed very privileged that our conductor for the recording was Odaline de la Martinez. She is well known for her championship of Ethel Smyth's music: her recording of Smyth's The Wreckers, in particular, is outstanding. We recorded in September 2015 and April 2016, with Nadine Benjamin (Mrs Waters), Edward Lee (Harry Benn), Jeremy Huw Williams (Ned Travers), Simon Wilding (Policeman) and others, plus members of the Lontano Ensemble, in St Mary's Church, Walthamstow, London, UK.
You can hear brief extracts from the recording here
 - we released it in August and you can buy it through this website (click on the CD Sales tab, above) or through The double CD includes some really interesting bonus tracks too.

The critics said: ‘The performance of the music has the highest professional standards, and all aspects of the attractive packaging and presentation, including a booklet with plenty of information and the full libretto, are excellent' (Journal of the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society, December 2016)

'The singing and playing ... is top notch' (Light Music Society Magazine, Winter 2016)

“’s really The Boatswain’s Mate, bursting with cheekiness and fun, that stands out here. It’s a young cast, but giving us committed, accomplished performances, and the only chance we have to hear this little gem of an opera.” (Kate Kennedy, BBC Radio 3)

a must for any self-respecting Smyth collection or collection of British music.” (Andrew McGregor, quoting Kate Kennedy, BBC Radio 3)

... this beautifully presented premiere recording ... conducted with infectious brio by Odaline de la Martinez ... Nadine Benjamin’s creamy lyric soprano hits her musical marks in the scena and everywhere else ... high production values’ (Opera, October 2016)

The recording quality of the music is ideal. The clarity of the singing is never in doubt. ... As a package this is exceptional. It is exactly how ‘revived’ operas should be presented.’ (MusicWeb International)

'This recording, a wholly remarkable achievement, should be in the collection of everyone interested in British music. ... one cannot imagine it being better done.' (Musical Opinion Quarterly, Oct-Dec 2016).

'... it’s wonderful to have The Boatswain in its first full recording ... superbly despatched by De La Martinez’s forces' (BBC Music Magazine, December 2016)

Ethel Smyth
Ethel SmythEthel Smyth (1858-1944) occupies an absolutely central place in the history of British women’s music. In terms of professionalism, ambition and achievement she was in a completely different league from the female composers who preceded her, and she has gone on proving an inspiration and influence to those who came after her. In recent decades, her significance and abilities have been demonstrated by a series of recordings and rapidly increasing academic interest. There is no doubt that, with the general boom in women’s music, and the fact that her music goes out of copyright next year (2015), we will be hearing a lot more of Smyth in the future.

Although a good deal of Smyth’s music is now available on record, the genre with which she was most preoccupied and identified, opera, is very poorly represented. Of her six operas, only one has been recorded entire: the magnificent Wreckers. That recording was made twenty years ago and we believe it high time for more of Smyth’s operatic work to be available. The outstanding candidate is the immediate successor to The Wreckers, The Boatswain’s Mate (1916), Smyth’s most tuneful and humorous work. The relationship between these two very different operas has well been described as closely analogous to that between Peter Grimes and Albert Herring. The Boatswain’s Mate was completed in 1914 and first performed in January 1916 so it has particular resonance now, a century later, with interest in the culture of the First World War very high.

Text © 2014 David Chandler

The Boatswain's Mate
The Boatswain’s Mate was far and away Ethel Smyth’s most successful opera in her lifetime, with significant extracts being released on 78 rpm record by HMV in 1917 and the work entering the repertory of the Old Vic in the 1920s. This is not surprising, for it is one of the comparatively few laugh-out-loud operas with its wonderful farcical plot. Despite the farce, it is a thought-provoking work, if anything of greater relevance today than it was in 1916, for at the centre of the story is the question of whether the widowed Mrs Waters would be happier living independently or getting remarried. It has sometimes been described as the feminist Smyth’s most feminist work. Her suffragette anthem, ‘The March of the Women’, is significantly incorporated into the overture, as are nursery rhymes, folk-melodies, and even a quotation from Beethoven's 5th Symphony!

smyth sargantMusically, The Boatswain’s Mate reveals Smyth at the very height of her powers, but in a relaxed and mellow mood. If some of her music gives the impression that she was trying excessively hard – not surprisingly, as she was convinced she had a male-dominated establishment arraigned against her – that is certainly not the case here. The Wagnerian ambitions of The Wreckers are replaced with something much more in tune with the fashion for light and sparkling number operas with a certain folk-like flavour that spread across Europe in the late 1800s. There is an obvious comparison to be made with Vaughan WilliamsHugh the Drover, composed at almost exactly the same time, which its composer described as a ‘ballad opera’.

Smyth prepared two versions of her score, one for full and one for reduced orchestra, itself with two versions, small and smaller. We are using the smaller reduced version as The Boatswain’s Mate is a small-scale work, ideally suited for smaller companies and venues, and Smyth clearly wanted it to be a popular work and regarded the reduced orchestral versions as essential for its wider cultural diffusion. In this chamber version, it was staged by the Luzerner Theater in February 2014. All the performances were sold out and the audiences were extremely enthusiastic, sometimes laughing out loud at the musical jokes.

We expect The Boatswain’s Mate to appeal to people interested in British opera, British women’s music, and the musical heritage of the First World War, and also to those who in general prefer operetta and lighter forms of musical theatre.

Text © 2014 David Chandler