Houston Grand Opera stages a powerful “Wreckers” revival

Sat Oct 29, 2022 at 2:36 pm
By Steven Brown
Sasha Cooke and Norman Reinhardt star as Thirza and Mark in Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers at Houston Grand Opera. Photo: MIchael Bishop

Ethel Smyth’s long-neglected The Wreckers may not be a masterpiece, but it tells a highly charged story through a score that excels at forcefulness. And Houston Grand Opera’s no-holds-barred revival, which opened Friday at Wortham Theater Center, plays to its strengths.

While the comparison may seem farfetched, since Smyth was a Briton who studied in Germany, The Wreckers could be seen as the English equivalent of verismo.

LIke Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci—which were still enjoying their first rush of popularity when The Wreckers premiered in 1906 — it’s a bloody tale set in a humble village. Also like its Italian predecessors, its central conflict involves a love affair between a man and another man’s wife. 

In place of Cavalleria’s rustic chivalry, The Wreckers deals in rustic zealotry. In a seaside British village where the townsfolk praise God and hail His bounty, they don’t mean fish: They’re talking about the loot they take from passing ships—which they help to crash by failing to warn them of coastal dangers. And if any crew survives, “In God’s mighty name, we shed blood!” the minister Pascoe thunders.

Pascoe’s wife, Thirza, and her paramour Mark bond by rebelling against the violence. Their almost half-hour love scene, the opera’s centerpiece, climaxes with their lighting a bonfire to alert passing ships to the coastline. 

The opera, in turns, climaxes with the couple confessing what they’re done to the outraged villagers. Thirza and Mark are shackled in a seaside cave to drown when the tide comes in, like Verdi’s Aida and Radames—or Giordano’s Andrea Chenier and Maddalena, for a verismo parallel.

If Smyth’s music has a kinship to verismo, it’s in her willingness to put fierce outbursts—generously sprinkled with high notes—into the characters’ mouths. Smyth is just as generous with brassy orchestral fortissimos. And some of The Wreckers’ most powerful stretches come with the walloping impact of the choral music for the fanatical villagers.

But Smyth’s music doesn’t equal that of verismo—much less that of Richard Wagner, to whom she’s more often linked—for lyricism or color. The Wreckers includes a couple of faux folksongs with charm, and the chorus begins Act 3 with a lament that has a haunting, sagging contour. But when Smyth goes for soulful, passionate melodies, they usually fail to jell—as in the meandering melodies of Mark’s and Thirza’s mini-arias in their love scene.

Except for a few fleeting moments when Smyth drops in orchestral half-shades and unsettled harmonies sometimes likened to Debussy’s, the score looks backwards—all the way to a simpler time before Wagner’s orchestral and harmonic innovations.

But HGO made the most of The Wreckers on Friday. The work’s first major proponent, British conductor Thomas Beecham, said in his memoirs that The Wreckers failed to catch on because of “the apparent impossibility of finding an Anglo-Saxon soprano who can interpret adequately that splendid and original figure, the tragic heroine Thirza.”

Setting aside the matter of Sasha Cooke’s ancestry—and the fact that she’s a mezzo-soprano—she may well have been the kind of performer Beecham had in mind. 

Cooke threw herself into the role, delivering Smyth’s music with abandon and full-throatedness galore. She reveled in moments like the climax of Thirza’s Act 1 scene with Pascoe, hurling out the denunciation of the villagers as “Murderers!” For all the hefty singing the role demanded, Cooke’s voice remained just as vibrant when Thirza and Mark faced down the villagers in the opera’s last scene.

When Thirza wasn’t so fired up—especially in the Act 2 scene with Mark, where their love blossoms — Cooke sang with a warmth and poise that made her a compelling, sympathetic figure.

Tenor Norman Reinhardt treated Mark’s side of things to generous helpings of the ring and ardor he brought to last season’s HGO production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Even in the score’s big moments, Reinhardt’s singing held onto its lyric-tenor luster. But he also brought wistful half-shades to Mark’s pensive turns—such as his quasi-folksong in Act 1, a lament about a dead sweetheart that hints at Mark’s basic melancholy.

Baritone Reginald Smith, Jr. let fly with dark, voluminous tones that easily captured the preacher Pascoe’s fire-and-brimstone zealotry. But Smith drew back to a whisper to capture the resignation of Pascoe’s farewell to Thirza: “You are lost to me.”

Mané Galoyan as Avis (center) leads the angry villagers in The Wreckers. Photo: Michael Bishop.

Soprano Mané Galoyan brough the very opposite of resignation to the role of Avis, the sweetheart Mark abandons to take up with Thirza. Resentment turns Avis into the village’s main agitator, and soprano Galoyan put across her hell-hath-no-fury compulsion through bright, vibrant tones and blazing high notes.

Mezzo-soprano Sun-Ly Pierce sang with youthful vigor in the trouser role of Jack, the boy Avis manipulates to aid her scheming.  And the village had a lusty-voiced group of rabble-rousers in tenor Paul Groves’ Tallan, baritone Luke Sutliff’s Harvey and baritone Daniel Belcher’s Lawrence.

The merciless villagers are so prominent in The Wreckers as to be a character in themselves—the title character, in fact—and the HGO Chorus made them come alive. 

The group opened Act 1 with a bang, delivering the village’s misguided credo in a vigorous, vehement unison. Act 1’s finale—the prelude to a wrecking excursion—rang out with bite, power and vigor galore. And the chorus brought smoother contours and more reserved sound to the opening of that Act 3 lament.

The villagers’ musical impact was matched by their theatrical presence, thanks to stage director Louisa Muller. She made the chorus—beefed up to 60 singers—not a mere mass, but an assortment of individual figures, animated and menacing. The last instant of Act 1 was especially powerful: Everyone lunged forward—and the lights blacked out.

Christopher Oram’s sets created a duly forbidding atmosphere, emphasizing grays — even for the sky — and stone.

Meanwhile, the story received an altogether more vivid frame from conductor Patrick Summers and the HGO Orchestra. Summers unleashed the group’s full, brassy force in the opera’s most ferocious moments, and he melded the orchestra and chorus into a formidable unit. But he also shaped the gentle side adroitly, especially when supporting Cooke and Reinhardt’s cozier moments.

The performance may have been more commanding overall than The Wreckers itself. That’s better than the opposite, isn’t it? 

The Wreckers runs through Nov. 11. houstongrandopera.org

Photo: Michael Bishop

2 Responses to “Houston Grand Opera stages a powerful “Wreckers” revival”

  1. Posted Oct 30, 2022 at 4:26 pm by Jack Firestone

    The Wreckers which I heard opening night has earned its place in the repertoire. With its bold choruses, three fine female leads, and wonderful staging, the production is a triumph for HGO and music director, Patrick Summers.

    More companies should check out the run in Houston and add this production to a future season. Cornwall, in which it is set, evokes the feeling of Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” which followed a half century later. Smythe’s music is easily accessible and late romantic, with interesting orchestration. The overture and interludes are colorful and add to the overall ambiance of the village on the sea.

  2. Posted Nov 10, 2022 at 12:57 pm by Emily

    The Wreckers has been long-neglected for a legitimate reason, and HGO’s marketing of it as a “masterpiece” is disappointing, as is many critics’ parroting of their manufactured hype. Kudos to the cast for making the most of the music and production, but this underwhelming work deserves to be retired.

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