Smyth advanced immeasurably on all previous female composers of opera, but what is perhaps most striking about her work in the field is her desire to develop the genre in several different directions, rather than just one. She never repeated herself, and to those who only know her earlier operas, Fête Galante is guaranteed to be a remarkable revelation. Where The Wreckers is the most powerful and socially engaged of her operas, and The Boatswain’s Mate the most tuneful and funny, Fête Galante is the most magical and original. It is the only score in which she drew upon neo-classical idioms, including stylised Baroque dances and an unaccompanied madrigal setting of ‘Soul’s Joy’, a poem then thought to be by John Donne, but now attributed to William Herbert (1580-1630), the dedicatee of the Shakespeare First Folio.
First performed at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and London’s Covent Garden in 1923, Fête Galante explores the blurred lines between fantasy and reality, illusion and delusion. Set in ‘a moon-lit Watteau garden’ and subtitled ‘a dance-dream’, the one-act opera is based on a short story by Maurice Baring, a close friend of Smyth’s about whom she subsequently published a book-length biography (1938). The neo-classical idiom of her music is well characterised by the Queen in the story: ‘Lilting and soft, but with an undercurrent / Of Sorrow and bitterness.’
Of Smyth’s six operas, Fête Galante was the only one to have been written to commission, by the British National Opera, in December 1921. It was also the opera that enjoyed the furthest reach during Smyth’s lifetime, having been both arranged as an orchestral suite (1924) and expanded as a ballet (1932). In these forms, Smyth’s music was presented in several high-profile concert performances under the composer’s baton, including the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Queen’s Hall Prom in 1933, at the invitation of Sir Henry Wood.
‘The public loved F.G.’, Smyth wrote in her diary in July 1923. She was not wrong. Among the substantial number of congratulatory letters she received, acclaimed singer Astra Desmond wrote, ‘I must tell you how tremendously I enjoyed your exquisite Fête Galante. It is one of the most beautiful and moving things I have seen or heard.’ The work was also said to have prompted Sir Richard Terry, the musicologist and pioneering early music specialist, to remark that Smyth was ‘the only English composer of opera who could really get it over the footlights’.
In view of the strength of these contemporary endorsements, it is clearly only proper that the opera that brought such enjoyment to listeners in the 1920s and 1930s should once again become available to the public in the form of a modern recording.