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Weekend getaway: SummerScape presents opera rarity The Wreckers

Written by
David Cote
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As noted in our roundup of the best weekend and day trips for dance, theater and opera outside of NYC, Bard SummerScape is an excellent outing for culture vultures. This past Sunday I put the list to the test and boarded a free bus to see the American premiere of composer-suffragist-sportswoman Dame Ethel Smyth’s mostly forgotten opera, The Wreckers, in Bard SummerScape through August 2.

This U.S. debut, conducted by Leon Botstein and staged by Thaddeus Strassberger, has been a long time coming. The Wreckers had its world premiere in 1906 in Leipzig, Germany, but only rarely turns up live, much less fully staged (Botstein led the American Symphony Orchestra in a 2007 concert premiere at Carnegie Hall). I had a delightful trip up to the eye-popping Richard B. Fisher Center on Bard’s picturesque campus (full disclosure: I’m an alumnus), but will this production catapult The Wreckers into the standard repertoire? No one knows. That’s why serious operagoers should make every attempt to see it.

Smyth’s score offers fulsome and dynamic orchestral writing in the post-Wagner, late-Romantic vein, and Bostein drew a splendid, tempestuous sound from the ASO when I attended. The excellent acoustics in the Sosnoff Theater afford the chance to savor the broad textural palette Smyth worked with and the musical world she moved in: echoes of Wagner, Strauss, even Bizet. There’s an impressive range of musical painting in the piece, from nature (the sea, mainly) to group and individual portraits that are distinct and vivid.

And the basic story of The Wreckers is quite compelling. Penned by one of the bisexual Smyth’s few male lovers, Henry Brewster (first in French and then translated into English), the libretto sets the scene in a remote Cornish village near the southwest English coast in the mid-18th century. The inhabitants of the town, led by pastor Pascoe (baritone Louis Otey) believe it’s their God-given right to lead ships onto the rocks and then plunder them. Aiding the fanatical villagers in this devilish activity is lighthouse keeper Lawrence (baritone Michael Mayes), who regularly extinguishes his lamp, drawing vessels astray. Pascoe’s unhappy wife, Thirza (mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner) and young fisherman Mark (tenor Neal Cooper), falling in love, find the practice abhorrent. Their budding affair sparks the dangerous jealousy of Lawrence’s feisty daughter, Avis (soprano Sky Ingram), whose scheming and lies drive most of the opera’s twists.

The elements for a bloody and thrilling predecessor to Peter Grimes are here, but too often the libretto lapses into stodgy melodrama. The plotting is slow, the characterizations too thin, and while the opera bravely takes on a big theme—the need for personal idealism over social pressure in a corrupted society—its characters only fitfully engage our sympathies. Still, the music is genuinely thrilling: strings and winds swirling into wonderful sonic portraits of the raging sea or listing ships; vocal writing for the principals that ranges from bold, sweeping passages to more playful English balladry; and stunning use of the chorus as a primal collective force. When the townspeople sing themselves into ecstasies about wrecking ships and plundering their cargo, the material sounds like Gilbert & Sullivan at a Wagnerian pitch, channeling the misanthropic nihilism of Sweeney Todd.

Strassberger’s staging is gently abstract but grounded in a persuasive psychological reading and maintains the period. Erhard Rom’s unit set is built of dozens of crates littering the stage and stacked up high, forming towering grim cliffs, seashores, or suggesting church and town square. Actors step carefully from crate to crate in the downstage area, as if navigating steppingstones by the sea. The lighting by JAX Messenger was appropriately grisly red at times, shadowy at others. Hannah Wasileski’s video projection added textures of rippling water and flame as needed. The cast was robust and persuasive, with a particularly juicy, fiery turn by Ingram as the horridly jealous Avis.

Above all, Bostein and Bard SummerScape show courage, foresight and great imagination, honoring operas that larger institutions are content to ignore. Even if the particular work leaves you unsatisfied, the experience of entering the Fisher and encountering something totally new is unforgettable and enriching. Seeing The Wreckers could inaugurate a lifelong appreciation of Smyth’s music; or it could even inspire an entirely new, 21st-century opera. New work, as much as revived obscurities, are the future of the form.

You can still catch The Wreckers, and the free bus ride up to Bard and back. This Sunday, Aug 2 is the final performance. The bus leaves at 9:30am from the Lincoln Center area and will return you there around 7pm. Tickets and details here.

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