Texas Classical Review » Blog Archive » Houston Grand Opera Stages Powerful ‘Wreckers’ Revival
Long neglected by Ethel Smyth The Wreckers may not be a masterpiece, but it tells a very charged story through a score that excels in strength. And the boundless revival of the Houston Grand Opera, which opened Friday at the Wortham Theater Center, is building on its strengths.
Although the comparison may seem far-fetched, since Smyth was a Briton who studied in Germany, The Wreckers could be considered the English equivalent of verismo.
As Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci– who were still experiencing their first surge of popularity when The Wreckers premiered in 1906 – it’s a gory tale set in a humble village. Much like its Italian predecessors, its central conflict involves a love affair between a man and another man’s wife.
Instead of cavalryhis rustic chivalry, The Wreckers deals with rustic fanaticism. In a British seaside village where the townspeople praise God and salute his bounty, they don’t talk about fish: they talk about the spoils they take from passing ships, which they help to make run over by not warning them of coastal dangers. And if a crew survives, “In the mighty name of God, we shed blood!” thunders Minister Pascoe.
Pascoe’s wife, Thirza, and her lover Mark bond as they rebel against violence. Their nearly half-hour love scene, the centerpiece of the opera, culminates in their lighting a bonfire to alert passing ships on the coast.
The opera, in turn, culminates with the couple confessing what they have done to outraged villagers. Thirza and Mark are chained in a cave by the sea to drown on a rising tide, like that of Verdi Aida and Radames—or Giordano Andrea Chenier and Magdalenefor a parallel verism.
If Smyth’s music has a kinship with verismo, it is in his desire to put fierce explosions – generously sprinkled with high notes – in the mouths of the characters. Smyth is equally generous with brassy orchestral fortissimos. And some of The Wreckers‘ the most powerful stretches come with the brutal impact of choral music for fanatical villagers.
But Smyth’s music does not equal that of verismo—much less that of Richard Wagner, to whom it is more often linked—for lyricism or color. The Wreckers includes some charmingly faux folksongs, and the chorus begins Act 3 with a lament that has a haunting, saggy outline. But when Smyth opts for soulful, passionate melodies, they usually fail, as in the meandering melodies of Mark and Thirza’s mini-arias in their love scene.
Except for a few fleeting moments where Smyth falls into orchestral halftones and unsteady harmonies sometimes compared to Debussy’s, the score looks back – to a simpler time before Wagner’s orchestral and harmonic innovations.
But HGO made the most of The Wreckers Friday. The work’s first major promoter, British conductor Thomas Beecham, stated in his memoirs that The Wreckers failed to gain acceptance due to “the apparent impossibility of finding an Anglo-Saxon soprano who could adequately interpret this splendid and original figure, the tragic heroine Thirza”.
Aside from the question of Sasha Cooke’s ancestry — and the fact that she’s a mezzo-soprano — she may well have been the kind of performer Beecham had in mind.
Cooke threw herself into the role, delivering Smyth’s music with abandon and full throat galore. She reveled in moments like the climax of Thirza’s Act 1 scene with Pascoe, launching the denunciation of the villagers as “Murderers!” Despite all the heavy singing the role demanded, Cooke’s voice remained just as vibrant as Thirza and Mark confronted the villagers in the opera’s final scene.
When Thirza wasn’t so excited, especially in the Act 2 scene with Mark, where their love blossoms, Cooke sang with a warmth and poise that made her a compelling and likable figure.
Tenor Norman Reinhardt treated Mark’s side of things with generous portions of the ring and the ardor he brought to Mozart’s HGO production last season The magic flute. Even in the great moments of the score, Reinhardt’s singing retained its lyrical, tenor luster. But he also brought nostalgic halftones to Mark’s pensive turns, like his near-folksong in Act 1, a lament about a dead lover that alludes to Mark’s basic melancholy.
Baritone Reginald Smith, Jr. let it fly with dark, chunky tones that easily captured preacher Pascoe’s fanaticism. But Smith retreated to a whisper to capture the resignation of Pascoe’s farewell to Thirza: “You are lost to me.”
Soprano Mané Galoyan In contrast to the resignation to the role of Avis, Mark’s darling gives up to reconnect with Thirza. Resentment makes Avis the main agitator in the village, and soprano Galoyan channels her compulsion to hell without fury through bright, vibrant tones and blazing high notes.
Mezzo-soprano Sun-Ly Pierce sang with youthful vigor as Jack, the boy Avis manipulates into helping him intrigue. And the village had a strong-voiced band of thugs in tenor Paul Groves’ Tallan, baritone Luke Sutliff’s Harvey and baritone Daniel Belcher’s Lawrence.
Ruthless villagers are so important in The Wreckers as a character in themselves – the main character, in fact – and the HGO chorus brought them to life.
The band opened Act 1 with a bang, delivering the village’s misguided creed in vigorous, vehement unison. The Act 1 finale – the prelude to a wrecking excursion – rang out with bite, power and vigor galore. And the chorus brought softer edges and a more reserved sound to the opening of this Act 3 lament.
The musical impact of the villagers is matched only by their theatrical presence, thanks to the director Louisa Muller. She made the chorus – bolstered up to 60 singers – not just a mass, but an assortment of individual, animated, menacing figures. The last moment of Act 1 was particularly powerful: everyone rushed forward and the lights went out.
Christopher Oram’s sets created an appropriately forbidding atmosphere, emphasizing grays – even for the sky – and stone.
Meanwhile, the story was given an altogether livelier setting by bandleader Patrick Summers and the HGO Orchestra. Summers unleashed the full brassy force of the band in the opera’s fiercest moments, and he fused orchestra and chorus into a formidable unity. But he also deftly shaped the soft side, particularly when backing up Cooke and Reinhardt’s cozier moments.
The performance may have been more imposing overall than The Wreckers himself. It’s better than the opposite, isn’t it?
The Wreckers until November 11. www.houstongrandopera.org