Wreckers Away! A Thrilling, Compelling HGO Production Does Justice to a Masterpiece

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.

The opera’s bumpy and convoluted performance history reflects the difficulties Smyth faced in securing a stable place in the repertoire for her magnum opus. The premiere of The Wreckers took place in Leipzig in 1906 in a German translation, after attempts at producing the work with Henry Brewster’s original French libretto failed. Subsequent performances in England, in a problematic English translation, took place in 1909 and 1910. But despite being championed by both Gustav Mahler and Sir Thomas Beecham, the work all but disappeared from the repertoire. Glyndebourne’s 2022 production was the work’s first major staging since 1939, and the first time in its original French.

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.

Set along the rugged and forbidding Cornish coast, The Wreckers tells the story of a deeply isolated and impoverished community whose livelihood is dependent on luring ships to crash on its rocky shores in order to murder the crew and plunder the goods. In a classic case of moral relativism, this violent and immoral way of life is justified as the will of God by the village pastor Pascoe. Against the backdrop of a potent portrait of fear, groupthink, religious fanaticism, and mob rule (sound familiar?), a central love story emerges that illuminates the courage of the protagonists, Mark and Thirza, who make the ultimate sacrifice for what is right.

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.

Pastor Pascoe, sung by baritone Reginald Smith Jr., has his own internal struggle between his understanding of God’s will and his inability to comprehend his wife’s desires. His declamatory tone was convincing in its clarity and gravitas. Mark, sung by tenor Norman Reinhardt, shared some sweet moments with Thirza, particularly when they echoed each other in the folksy-sounding “I shall do for the love I bore him.” Lawrence, the lighthouse keeper (Daniel Belcher), and Jack (Sun-Ly Pierce), a young man who is infatuated with Avis, both brought dimension and fine voices to their supporting roles.

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.

Blending her Germanic training, French influence, and essential Englishness, the cosmopolitan Smyth created a masterpiece that contains the best of these worlds yet avoids being a hodge-podge. Her use of motifs, particularly the emphatic D-minor theme that opens the overture and reappears throughout the score, harkens to Wagner. The hymn-like choral pieces and folksy songs are quite English, as are the sweeping depiction of the sea. The sensual melodies, particularly Avis’s solos, have a French sensibility. The orchestration is lush and masterful–big brass and glittering harps, shimmering violin and wind solos, the whirling flurry of passage work in the strings. It’s a sweeping, romantic, and lyrical score that makes one swoon.

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.