Smyth: The Wreckers

Odaline de la Martinez, BBC Philharmonic, Anne-Marie Owens, Justin Lavender, Peter Sidhom, David Wilson-Johnson, Retrospect Opera RO004 (Reissue)

It isn’t the first time, and I’m sure it won’t be the last that I’ve said “Thank God for Retrospect Opera!”. Having been long intrigued by the work of Ethel Smyth, I’ve been keen to hear The Wreckers for some time, but was disappointed to find the recording on Conifer Records from 1994 was out of print and very hard to find. Retrospect Opera have come to the rescue, however, and have produced a really fantastic re-release of this Proms Performance of Smyth’s operatic magnum opus. The story revolves around the doomed existence of individuals in the face of violent religious extremism, which makes the piece seem very contemporary in thematic terms. The score is unsettled and soaringly romantic, echoing both the love affair central to the plot and the unsettled waters of the Cornish Coast, where the story is set. The joy of the music for me is in Smyth’s refusal to write predictable melodies. There is, in a Verdian sense, an inevitability sometimes about where the melodies will go, but even then, the paths towards that end point are consistently surprising in their harmonic and metric schemes. However, onto the re-issue itself. Retrospect’s usual packaging style is always very welcome- a three-fold booklet style with the two discs, a generous booklet and other brief texts introducing the work on the reverse side covers (in this case, including an excerpt of Smyth’s handwriting). The original CD artwork is combined with Retrospect’s more familiar cream coloured sleeve. The whole product is smart and presented in a way that instantly aims to engage the consumer with the music. The booklet features a new foreword by Dr. Christopher Wiley, an expert in the life and work of Ethel Smyth and professor at the University of Surrey, who can be seen online on Pyrford TV ARTS giving a detailed interview about the great composer. Along with this is a history of the work from the original 1994 release by Ronald Crichton, a detailed synopsis and a full libretto, all of which do one of the masterpieces of the British opera stage the justice it so clearly deserves. (Dare we hope for a staging sometime?!). The CD is available online, but there have been some slight issues with the Amazon listing for the piece. If you do intend to use the Amazon platform, please follow this link: <https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0000024E1>  and be sure to go to the section that lists third party sellers (“Used and new”) where you will find a listing from Retrospect themselves. It is by far the cheapest offer for this CD set- a bargain at £17.95 as opposed to £30+ elsewhere. Two further releases from Retrospect are proposed this year and their efforts should swiftly disabuse those whose view is that English Opera was fallow between Purcell and the 20th Century and Peter Grimes. There is a treasure trove here and Retrospect are pioneering in revealing great works from the interim near 300 years! DA

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