The sweeping grounds of Glyndebourne, with their views on to the rolling green of the South Downs, their grazing lambs and their lilypad pond, exude a particular type of Englishness. Add to that the festival’s patrons, perambulating at unfathomably slow pace, dressed for the most part in black tie and all sorts of exotic scarves, and you end up with a scene that simply could not be happening anywhere else. The parking situation is remarkably civilised. The smatters of conversation you catch as you move through the grounds between people unpacking their picnics are often variations on “isn’t this LOVELY”, only intensifying the overall sense of loveliness.
Yet Englishness, as regular readers of the New Statesman will be aware, is not singularly defined in these undulating green terms. And on the opening night of the festival on Saturday (21 May), on a perfect English summer day punctuated with glasses of English sparkling wine, another kind of national identity competed for attention in Ethel Smyth’s 1906 opera The Wreckers, directed by Melly Still in its first staging since 1983 and the first proper revival in a century. On a dark, cold stage, with a haunted-looking cast draped in fishing nets, and a pre-Britten dissonance running through the choral settings, it projects a very different outlook on English culture.
Despite its obscurity The Wreckers has been described as the most important English opera composed between Henry Purcell (1659-1695) and Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). Set in Cornwall in the late 19th century, it is a story of profound tension, struggle and moral ambiguity in a community whose survival depends on luring ships on to the rocks for plunder. Though the opera’s villain may be Pasko, the pastor who has ensnared the young heroine Thurza into marriage and who condemns the villagers for their drinking and debauchery, to the villagers it is Thurza who must be ostracised — because she dissents against the wrecking. When they discover that someone has been lighting beacons to save the ships, they vow to punish whoever has been “seduced by the devil”.
Smyth was adamant not to be known as a “woman composer”, but her gender undoubtedly affected the arc of her career. She wrote six operas between the 1890s and 1920s — The Wreckers was initially given a good showing by the esteemed English conductor Thomas Beecham — but it is Britten who is now known as Britain’s first significant composer of opera post-Purcell. Smyth undoubtedly would have felt strongly about her somewhat trampled legacy: she was a staunch feminist and prominent suffragette, once jailed for vandalising a politician’s home, and has been romantically linked to Emmeline Pankhurst and Virginia Woolf.
And as much as this is an opera about England — not only in its musical flirtations with folk song and English landscape, but in its depiction of an isolated community living in poverty and desperation — it is also an opera about women. At its heart are Thurza and Avis, an accepted member of the wrecker community who is nevertheless chastised by Pasko for her feminine appearance and jewellery. Avis shrieks that he is a “censor of women” as he takes her necklace; indeed, Pasko holds Thurza in a loving grip that she finds more abhorrent than the hatred directed at her by the villagers.
Though the two women are embroiled in a classically operatic love quadrangle with Pasko (Philip Horst) and Marc (Rodrigo Porras Garulo, the lead tenor) it is their own senses of self within the oppressive structures of both the wreckers and the patriarchy that brings the most fire to the stage. The two roles — Avis’ haunting soprano delivered by a radiant Lauren Fagan, and Thurza’s mezzo (unconventional for an operatic heroine) by a melancholic Karis Tucker — stay ringing in your ears.
An orchestral score with twangs of modernism and a libretto in French defined by power struggles make for an unsettling yet profound experience. Four women in Edwardian black dresses haunt the stage — ghosts of the wrecked, perhaps — and death and decay hangs over everything. In a final perverse and ambiguous power struggle, Thurza is discovered to be the one lighting the beacons, a crime punishable by death. She is happy with her fate, which will enable her to be with her lover, Marc, forever, but Pasko asserts himself once more by commanding that she must not be allowed to die, and must instead live in remorse and misery.
Glyndebourne’s season will proceed in full, pre-pandemic force; as well as The Wreckers it includes the old favourites Marriage of Figaro, Don Pasquale and La Bohème. All will no doubt contribute to a jolly nice day out, alongside a picnic in some of the most beautiful countryside in England and the sense of ritual that imbues this part of national culture with stability. Yet Smyth’s work is there among it, smudging the picture, showing pain, confusion, community, aloneness and something as unstable as the surface of the sea. It’s disruptive and powerful, a splash of icy water on a balmy summer day. It is, somehow, so very English.
[See also: Against the Bolaño industry]