It was a revelatory night at the Houston Grand Opera for the opening of Dame Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers. HGO is known for taking risks and championing new and challenging works. Even so, a sense of eager anticipation came with the first full-scale production of this long-neglected work by a major American opera company. Few people knew what to expect because few people had ever heard it before.
HGO’s production, in Amanda Holden’s crisp new English translation, brings Smyth’s brilliant score to life with dramatic intensity and thrilling passion, propelled by narrative clarity and the nuanced, empathetic exploration of each character’s internal struggles.
Driving the action are the strong-willed women, much like Smyth herself, who fight back against the patriarchy and make their own choices. Thirza, repelled by the sanctimonious hypocrisy of her husband Pascoe, helps her lover Mark light the beacon that will shepherd ships safely away from shore. Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke imbued Thirza with a full range of emotions, veering from defiance to disgust, determination to tenderness. Her mezzo is by turns rich and powerful, lyrical and supple.
The lighthouse keeper’s young daughter Avis, still in love with Mark, is a woman scorned. She seeks revenge against Thirza, her rival. In her own way, she is also rebelling against the rules of a closed society. She questions Pascoe’s “it’s God’s punishment” explanation for the lack of shipwrecks by pointing an accusing finger at a possible traitor within. She flirts and uses her charms to get what she wants. She is manipulative and vindictive, but she is also willing to be disgraced in the end to protect her former lover. The beguiling soprano Mané Galoyan, a HGO Studio alumnus, embodied the impetuous Avis to perfection. Her lovely rendition of “Precious is a woman’s promise” exuded a youthful, careless sensuality that delighted the audience. The highest notes were light and bright, yet never shrill. In all her scenes, whether in love, hurt, hate, or jealous rage, she commanded the stage with an unforgettable presence.
Director Louisa Muller is a genius at clarifying potentially disjointed plot points with nuance, expression, and clever staging. In her hands, Smyth’s epic drama is engaging in every moment, and no detail is lost. The HGO Chorus, under the capable direction of Richard Bado, is mighty in this production: astonishing in its power and brutal in its judgment, but also adept at finding the shimmering colors of a softer sound palette.
Set Designer Christopher Oram and Lighting Designer Marcus Doshi captured the drama and mood of the Cornish seascape with an eye to authenticity. In Act I, the imposing stone walls arising from the harbor are lined with large baskets that came all the way from Cornwall. The windswept promontory in Act II glows with the fire from the beacon. In Act III, jagged rocks juts into the sea cave where the lovers will be judged and condemned to death. The light changes subtly as dawn arrives and the tide rises. Splashes of water enter the cave as the music swells to its final climax.
Smyth’s score, in all its ambitious glory, is the shining beacon of the production, and the HGO Orchestra, under the direction of Patrick Summers, gave a vivid performance that delivered passion and thrills. Gorgeous melodic lines, vigorous rhythmic drive, lush colors–everything worked together in its totality.
HGO has taken the risk and done the work to restore Smyth’s masterpiece to its rightful place in the repertoire. Now the rest of the world needs to see it and hear it.