There is a rule of thumb that states British opera did not truly exist until the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes in the days following VE Day. Palpably this is not true, but it is believed by many opera enthusiasts. There are the Savoy Operas, but these are usually regarded as being as less than ‘serious’. In fact, even the briefest glance at the listings of British opera (operetta) over the years prior to Grimes, reveals a large number of works. Well known examples include RVWs Hugh the Drover, Delius’ A Village Romeo and Juliet and Edward German’s Merrie England. There are plenty of others. Two major genres are represented here: grand opera and light opera or operetta.
The Boatswain’s Mate falls into the category of ‘short opera’. And therein lies one of its problems. It needs a programme partner. Few opera goers would be prepared to spend a considerable sum on a performance lasting a mere one and half hours. It needs its Cox and Box.
A few notes on the composer may be of interest to listeners. Ethel Smyth was born on 23 April 1858 in Sidcup, Kent. She was the daughter of a Major General in the Royal Artillery. Smyth studied abroad under the German musician Heinrich von Herzogenberg, and at the Leipzig Conservatory. Early successes included the symphonic Serenade in D major for orchestra and the Overture: Anthony and Cleopatra which were first heard at the Crystal Palace. In 1893 she presented her Mass in D at the Royal Albert Hall. She was a prolific composer of operas with her most famous being The Wreckers, inspired by the seas and history of Cornwall. It was preceded by the comic opera Fantasio and Der Wald. Other stage works were to follow The Boatswain’s Mate, including Fête Galante, Entente Cordiale. During a two-month term of imprisonment in Holloway she wrote an oratorio, The Prison. There were also a number of skilful chamber works.
Her political activities often overshadowed her music. She was active in the Suffragette movement and the Woman’s Social and Political Union. Her volumes of autobiography including Impressions that Remain, Streaks of Life and A Final Burning of Boats make entertaining and informative reading.
Smyth’s music is of great quality: it is characterised by powerful melodies and competent scoring. One feels that is she had been male, her star would have risen as high as Elgar, Parry and Stanford. In 1922 she was made a Dame of the British Empire. Ethel Smyth died in Woking on 8 May 1944.
The Boatswain’s Mate was written during 1913/14 whilst Smyth had taken a step back from the militant politics of the Women’s Social and Political Union. Apparently, she toyed with the idea of setting J.M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea. She put this to one side and chose to devise a libretto from the short story The Boatswain’s Mate by W.W. Jacobs printed in the Strand Magazine (August 1905). The music was composed whilst she was on a ‘vacation’ for six months in a Hotel in Helouan, Egypt. The political struggle was not totally forgotten: her The March of the Women and the song ‘1910’ from Songs of Sunrise for unaccompanied choir, commemorating the violence of ‘Black Friday’ (18 November 1910) are woven into the overture.
The Boatswain’s Mate was premiered at the Shaftsbury Theatre on January 28 1916 and was performed by the Beecham Opera Company. It was conducted by the Smyth herself.
I do not intend to plot spoil. One or two brief pointers will be of significance. The first thing to surprise the listener is that the action is set in a pub. I guess before I read anything about this opera I imagined that it would reflect the high seas, or at least some seaport such as Plymouth or Portsmouth. I felt that it would follow in the wake, as it were, of The Wreckers. However, all the action is set in The Beehive, a remote country inn.
Secondly, there has been much argument as to whether this is a ‘feminist’ opera of not. It is possible to analyse it as such, but equally imaginable to consider its heroine as a ‘feisty’ woman, who manages to outwit a calculating suitor and (possibly) falls for his competitor in her affections. In other words, a straightforward battle of the sexes, where the woman wins.
Musically the work is written in two diverse parts, although ostensibly in one act. The first part has a selection of arias and interludes sung by the soloists. This is interspersed with spoken dialogue, in the same manner as Gilbert and Sullivan in their Savoy Operas. The style could also be defined as ballad-opera. The second ‘part’ is musical throughout, with all ‘dialogue’ sung in the manner of a music drama. I am not sure why she created this obvious disparity: I am not completely convinced that it adds to the end result. The music is always enjoyable and never ceases to hold the listener’s attention.
And finally, Ethel Smyth not only uses her famous march: she also weaves a number of folk tunes into the proceedings. This includes ‘Bushes and Briars’, ‘Lord Randall’ and ‘O Dear what can the matter be?’
The recording quality of the of the music is ideal. The clarity of the singing is never in doubt. It would be disingenuous to pick out any individual soloist. All of them give a sympathetic and convincing performance. The Lontano Ensemble provide an intimate, chamber quality to the proceedings.
The liner notes are comprehensive. The first section presents an essay by Christopher Wiley on ‘The Boatswain’s Mate in the context of Smyth’ life and works.’ Another major essay by the present conductor Odaline de la Martinez, examines ‘The Music of The Boatswain’s Mate.’ Finally, David Chandler considers the operetta’s ‘Source, Adaptation and Emphasis.’ The usual biographies of the cast and performers are given. Most important of all, the libretto is printed in full (including sung numbers and dialogue). As a package this is exceptional. It is exactly how ‘revived’ operas should be presented.
Included in this 2 CD set are two historical treats. Firstly, there are ‘significant’ extracts of The Boatswain’s Mate recorded (unbelievably) on 2 October 1916. This century-old recording is surprisingly good. But then it should be. It was made by The Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer. I am not too sure what the recording history of this work is, but reading the liner notes it would appear that a number of records were issued featuring the Overture followed by eight songs/arias/interludes from the operetta.
The final indulgence is the overture from Ethel Smyth’s other opera The Wreckers. This was recorded in 1930 with the composer again conducting The Symphony Orchestra. It has been released on Symposium 1202 in 2000. However, it is valuable to have it here as a pendant to the present opera. One cannot help noticing just how far recording technology progressed in the post First World War years. As a matter of interest, another version of this overture was recorded by Sir Alexander Gibson in 1968, along with works by German, Harty and MacCunn. (HMV ASD 2400)
This the first recording from Retrospect Opera. This is a registered charity whose mission is to record selected British operas of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. They combine expertise in performing, editing of music and scholarly research. The aim is to allow listeners to hear and understand the ‘wealth of British operatic heritage.’ All the profits made from this CD release will be ploughed back into further projects. Retrospect Opera has an excellent website. Other operas being produced will include Edward Loder’s Raymond and Agnes and Solomon and Burnard’s Pickwick. I understand that plans are being made for a recording of Smyth’s Fête Galante.
The Boatswain’s Mate is an ideal candidate for concert performances. No complicated sets, scenery or props are needed. The cast is limited to about eight principals and only a chamber ensemble is required.
Let us hope that two things result from this outstanding new release from Retrospect Opera. Firstly, a wider appreciation of Dame Ethel Smyth’s music, with increased performances of the present opera and possibly the other five. And secondly, a greater demand for listeners and singers to explore the proud heritage of Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian (V) operas that have for so long lain under the cloud of negative comparison with Peter Grimes.
Dame Ethel SMYTH (1858-1944)
The Boatswain’s Mate: A Comedy in One Act and Two Parts (1916) Complete Opera (Edition prepared by Dr Valerie Langfield
The Boatswain’s Mate (extracts from the 1916 recording) The Symphony Orchestra/Ethel Smyth
The Wreckers: Overture The Symphony Orchestra/Ethel Smyth (rec.1930)
Lontano Ensemble/Odaline de la Martinez.
Nadine Benjamin (Mrs Waters), Edward Lee (Harry Benn), Jeremy Huw Williams (Ned Travers), Simon Wilding (Policeman) Ted Schmitz (The Man) Rebecca Louise Dale (Mary Ann) and Chorus.
Rec. September 2015 and April 2016 St Mary's Church, Walthamstow, London, UK.
RETROSPECT OPERA RO001
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.