Retrospect Opera

Great British Operas On Record

The Wreckers - The Recording

CDWe are delighted to announce that we are re-releasing the 1994 recording of Smyth’s The Wreckers, which, until we came along, was the only commercially available modern recording of any of her six operas. Originally issued on the Conifer Classics label, it was recorded live at the BBC Proms, where The Wreckers was presented to mark the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death in 1944. Odaline de la Martinez conducts the BBC Philharmonic and Huddersfield Choral Society.

Ethel Smyth
Ethel Smyth
Ethel 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 particular interest generated in Smyth given the productions of her operas The Wreckers, The Boatswain’s Mate, and Fête Galante internationally across the past decade, we will be hearing a lot more of Smyth in the future.

Although a good deal of Smyth’s music is now available in modern recordings, the genre with which she was most preoccupied and identified, opera, is poorly represented. In fact, prior to Retrospect Opera’s endeavours, only one of her six operas was commercially available in a modern recording. It is that recording, of Smyth’s The Wreckers, that we are re-releasing in 2018. Having issued the first complete modern recording of The Boatswain’s Mate in 2016 to critical acclaim, we are currently crowdsourcing funds to record Fête Galante later this year.

© 2016 David Chandler and Christopher Wiley

The Wreckers

Smyth SargentThe Wreckers is arguably the greatest of Smyth’s operas, and certainly her most ambitious. It was her only three-act stage work and required significantly larger musical resources than any of the others. Composed in 1902–4, the opera was inspired by Smyth’s walking holiday of Cornwall and the Scilly Isles some years previously, during which she explored smugglers’ caves such as Piper’s Hole on the island of Tresco. 

This brought her into contact with apocryphal tales of the locals luring ships onto rocks in order to pillage their loot, to which she added a subplot of two lovers attempting to thwart this nefarious practice by lighting warning beacons. The monumental opera that resulted was later described by the composer herself as “The work by which I stand or fall”. One of its highlights, often performed in its own right as a concert piece, is the evocative prelude to Act II, “On the Cliffs of Cornwall”.

Written with a French libretto by Smyth’s collaborator Henry Brewster as Les Naufrageurs, the opera was translated into both German (as Strandrecht) and English when attempts to secure a production in the original language proved fruitless. It was premiered at the Neues Theater, Leipzig in November 1906, prompting many curtain calls. Yet the composer, disgruntled at the extensive cuts made to the final act without her consent, withdrew her music from the orchestra pit following the opening night and, in a move she believed to be “unique in the annals of Operatic History”, took it to Prague to be played there instead (it turned out to be a woefully inadequate production). She was to wait three more years for the first stage performance in her home country, at His Majesty’s Theatre, London in June 1909; the six-night production was conducted by Thomas Beecham, who was to become one of Smyth’s strongest allies in the music profession, and it was attended by King Edward VII himself. 

© 2018 Christopher Wiley