Ethel Smyth’s Wreckers at Glyndebourne

The performances of The Wreckers at Glyndebourne have attracted a great deal of hype, some but not all of which is justified. Let me begin by agreeing that it is a work of substance well worth reviving. Its late-Romantic musical idiom is powerfully conceived: soaring melodic lines for the emotional outbursts of the protagonists, driving rhythms for the chorus, and atmospheric orchestral sounds for the forces of nature. All of which excitingly emerged in the hands of conductor Robin Ticciati and the excellent London Philharmonic Orchestra, together the undoubted heroes of the evening.
The soloists too performed creditably. Mezzo Karis Tucker and tenor Rodrigo Porris Garulo as the tragic loving couple gave full-throated utterance to their conviction in withstanding the hostility of the villagers to resist their shipwrecking activities. The sonorous bass of Philip Horst rolled out suitably as the sanctimonious, hypocritical clergyman and in the role of the abandoned betrothed soprano Lauren Fagan revealed a brilliant upper register. And as usual, the Glyndebourne chorus were impressive in both volume and precision.
On the face of it, the theme and plot of the opera may appear straightforward and unproblematic: the village activity of plundering the wrecks of ships lured on to rocky shores is thwarted when one of the fishermen, aided by the clergyman’s wife with whom he is in love, lights a beacon to alert vessels of the danger. But questions unanswered in the libretto remain: what motivates the heroic couple to sacrifice themselves for the noble act? And how does that relate to their mutual passion? While their actions and those of their adversaries are dramatically forthright, the characterisation is somewhat murky. In short where lies the moral core of the piece?
The production of Melly Still and her designer Ana Inés Jabares-Pita, for all its theatricality, failed to answer these questions and, indeed, the mixture of approaches in the staging, in part naturalistic, in part stylistic, added to the ambiguity of the enterprise. The roars of approval with which the audience greeted the performers at the end must certainly have reflected an uplift in emotions from the stirring music and its exposition, but did it indicate a deeper satisfaction?