On Opera

Getting wrecked

Dame Ethel Smyth’s opera dated quickly, but it hardly hurts to have another look at it

This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

It took a while, but a happy truth is gradually dawning on our summer opera companies. Reasons for hauling oneself to Glyndebourne (and its dog-and-pony ringers) have always been only tangentially connected to the witnessing of opera: viz. bitterly competitive picnicking, pricey snoozes, stress-testing a new mistress, social showboating of a niche kind, indulging the immemorial dream of an England populated solely by homosexuals and emotionally strangulated white people, the thrill of drunk-driving to beguile the weary road home, and so forth.

This is a massive mercy in an opera world otherwise devoted to churning out the same old 30 pieces

So what’s new? Well, in the old days it used to be wall-to-wall Marriage of Figaro wherever you went. No longer! — they have finally realised that the specific show is of nugatory importance, now these joints have repositioned themselves as part of the ineffable new-look “season”, aimed not at melomanes but at hedgies and those hefty customers who have lately discovered they are in fact Ukrainian, so Mozart’s tiresome comedy, a sort of limp Downton Abbey, can give place to less predictable manifestations.

This, in fact, is a massive mercy in an opera world otherwise devoted to churning out the same old 30 pieces, not least for the hard-pressed critic searching for reasons not to commit suicide while undergoing the year’s twentieth Traviata party-scene — which nowadays by law must include the entire chorus in their underwear, a sight none should have to see.

As a result of this welcome new catholicity, Glyndebourne can now programme ten performances of The Wreckers (1906) by Ethel Smyth, one of those forgotten Victorian/Edwardian edifices (and there are plenty, amazingly not all written by women or black people). We’ll know by now whether it’s the deathless masterpiece claimed — indeed we have it on the authority of Myleene Klass at Classic FM that it’s one of the world’s 20 greatest operas — or anything more than the stirring but patchy creature it has looked on its few outings in recent decades. But that’s hardly the point.

Dame Ethel was one of those strapping ladies generally described as “splendid”, aristo-contrarian, amorously free-spirited, who dauntlessly pursued her musical and other battles in the teeth of ridicule. She is, of course, now co-opted by all manner of creeps she would abhor.

Roger Scruton, not very kindly, had her sung by a baritone in his 2005 opera Violet, mooning hopelessly at Violet Gordon-Woodhouse. Aged 71, she contracted the hots for Virginia Woolf, who instead of being appropriately grateful said it was “hideous and horrid … like being caught by a giant crab”. Unlike many of the other ghastly suffragettes she didn’t sign up with Oswald Mosley’s gang. Actually, she was pretty fab.

And The Wreckers has a vividly pointed moral set-up. A grim, pious Cornish fishing village is induced by famine to plunder ships lured onto the rocks: their Wesleyan minister assures them he’s cleared this with God, despite the marginal disbenefits of drowned sailors. Meanwhile, his wife and her lover are secretly warning off the ships with ad-hoc mini-lighthouses; inevitably they get rumbled and dealt with by the righteous locals in the traditional Cornish manner (turned into pasties).

Opera loves this lark of yahoo society ranged against the awkward gang (of which the composer is clearly a leading member). Incidentally, why is it always the Methodies who get flak? Britten also has a weaselly preacher prominent among the Borough morlocks who persecute poor old child-abuser Peter Grimes.

More edgily, in his Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk of 1934 Dmitri Shostakovich proposes whacked-out murderess Katerina as victim of society rather than oversexed layabout who needs a nice hobby. (As usual his aims were opaque: he said of the nineteenth-century author he borrowed that “Leskov was unable to interpret correctly the events in his story … my role as a Soviet composer is to interpret these events from our Soviet point of view…”. Stalin, astutely, got the point, and swiftly had performances stopped.)

There is a good deal of special-interest horseshit talked about the historical “cancellation” of the likes of our Ethel

The logical development of this is to stick your actual enemies in the show, and deluge them with ridicule and contempt. Wagner did this to the critic Eduard Hanslick, making him Beckmesser in The Mastersingers, the pedantic song-judge, who gratifyingly cocks up his own Nuremberg’s Got Talent slot. In Handel’s Agrippina, the bumbling, senescent letch Emperor Claudius is the librettist’s little dig at the Pope. John Gay put Robert Walpole on stage as copper’s nark Peachum in The Beggar’s Opera. It’s good sport.

And it would be fun to prove that Dame Ethel intended some dronish linchpin of the musical “male machine” for the pastor Pascoe (though in fact she also had many friends and fans: Elgar, Beecham, Sullivan, Shaw). Obviously there is a good deal of special-interest horseshit talked about the historical “cancellation” of the likes of our Ethel, when the truth is her stuff just got dated very quickly, but it hardly hurts to have another look at all this.

Opera Holland Park is doing something similar with Frederick Delius’s neo-verismo shocker Margot la rouge; of course it might be dreadful — though his Village Romeo and Juliet, equally buried, certainly isn’t — but OHP has made an endearing virtue out of digging up old rubbish for one last outing. And where’s the harm? Opera tiptoes along the brink of the laughable at the best of times. Too many masterpieces are bad for the digestion. Among its other uses, summer opera can fight for the important truth that turkeys aren’t just for Christmas.

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