Dimming the lighthouse, these parasites are poised to plunder cargo and leave seafarers to drown. The local pastor is in on the crime. But his young wife and her lover have higher ideals, lighting beacons to warn ships of land ahead. When the irate villagers detect that their ploy is being undermined, everyone is under suspicion.
Smyth is best known today as the composer of the catchy Suffragettes' anthem, but The Wreckers, the third of her six operas, is a mighty affair that has echoes of many more famous composers – oh, here comes Richard Wagner, and isn't that Georges Bizet? – and predates by decades Benjamin Britten's portrait of another stunted seafaring society, Peter Grimes. (Britten possessed a copy of the earlier composer's score.)
The vicious villagers turn on the pastor's wife, Thurza (Karis Tucker). Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
A new production of this neglected work for Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2022 by Melly Still is a stupendous undertaking. Ana Inés Jabares-Pita's set hints at rickety stairs to the beach, ascents and descents symbolic of a the characters' lurching emotions and morality. The video backdrop projection of Akhila Krishnan calls to mind Turner's furious seas, tumultuous clouds and burning skies.
Glyndebourne Chorus seethes like a fifth element, ebbing and flowing like the tide until it becomes a final great wave. Thrashing from
suspect to suspect, the shabby villagers finally settle on someone to blame for their deprivation. Thanks to Still's direction and choreography by Mike Ashcroft, this many-headed monster is genuinely frightening.
Lauren Fagan plays the frustrated Avis. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
Outstanding among the many soloists is Lauren Fagan as Avis, the girlfriend of Marc, who is secretly seeing the pastor's wife. Taking a role of great vocal complexity in her astride, her restless, thwarted Avis lights up the stage. Rodrigo Porras Garulo's Marc looks the part but has intonation problems that destabilise one of the few out-and-out tunes, a love song that Thurze also sings, Avis detecting from this that they are having an affair.
Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts is the enthusiastic publican Tallan, and Philip Horst's pastor Pasko reveals his dark heart at every unpleasant turn. American mezzo-soprano Karis Tucker as Thurze makes an impressive Glyndebourne debut before a hugely appreciative audience, and Marta Fontanals-Simmons is the lusty young Jacquet.
Robin Ticciati conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra makes sense of the maze of themes and dead ends in this sprawling marathon. Nonetheless, you come away feeling you have been on a tremendous journey, but with few memories of the landmarks.
Thurze (Karis Tucker) lights the beacon that will save seafarers from shipwreck. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
The acid test is, would you set out again? Personally yes, especially given a production this polished. Hats off to Glyndebourne for opening with music by a woman who both impressed and infuriated the illustrious international arts world in which she moved.
Excellent essays in this season's handsome programme look at, among many subjects, her relationship with Virginia Woolf, whom she adored, and record that the French composer Gabriel Fauré, on hearing the piece played through, pronounced of the prelude that 'in two bars, you are in the sea' . True enough. Dive in.
The Wreckers is sung in French with English surtitles. Further performances are on 1, 4, 7, 10, 16, 21, 24 June. Click here to book. It is sung, semi-staged, at the BBC Proms on Sun 24 July at 6:30PM and broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Click here for details
|What||The Wreckers, Glyndebourne Festival Opera review|
|Where||Glyndebourne, Lewes, East Sussex, BN8 5UU | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Victoria (underground)|
21 May 22 – 24 Jun 22, 10 performances with 85-minute dinner interval
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|