One question was on the lips of every audience member travelling down to Glyndebourne’s season opener: would Dame Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers show itself to be a neglected masterpiece, unjustly shunned due to circumstances of war and the sex of its composer, or would it be, not to mince words, not very good, deserving of its obscurity?

Karis Tucker (Thurza) and Glyndebourne Chorus
© Richard Hubert Smith

From the outset, the opera shows itself to have plenty of dramatic punch. The Wreckers prefigures Peter Grimes, a tale of the power of the sea and the power of the mob in an unnamed coastal village. But Smyth’s Cornish village is a darker place than Britten’s Borough: the villagers make their living not from fish but from scavenging the wrecks of ships that they lure onto the rocks by turning off the lighthouse beacon. What distinguishes The Wreckers is the inversion of morality: for the village leaders (the pastor Pasko, the innkeeper Tallan and the lighthouse keeper Laurent), the wrecked ships are the bounty sent to them by god. Pasko’s wife Thurza is seen a foreign interloper: when she and her lover Marc set fires on the cliffs to warn the ships, they are committing high treason, denying the villagers their legitimate livelihood. The parallel with Smyth’s suffragette movement could hardly be more stark; nor could the relevance to the politics of today with its all-too-frequent glorification of The Big Lie.

Into the moral dislocation is thrown a web of sexual desires: Pasko loves (or at least desires) Thurza who loves and is loved by Marc; Tallan’s son Jacquet loves Laurent’s daughter Avis who loves Marc. These desires motivate the plot as much as anything else as it wends its way towards a Wagnerian Liebestod-style finale in which Thurza and Marc are condemned to death in the waves but united in sublime love.

Philip Horst (Pasko), Karis Tucker (Thurza)
© Richard Hubert Smith

There was some strong singing. The Glyndebourne Chorus produced a huge sound, quite terrifying as the mob; the standout solo performance came from Rodrigo Porras Garulo as Marc, an attractive dramatic tenor whose voice easily persuaded us of that Thurza and Avis might love him. Lauren Fagan’s Avis was also strongly sung and powerfully acted. Her character is not a pleasant one and if there was a certain level of acidity in Fagan’s tone, it was very much in keeping with the viciousness of the character she portrays. The two basses, James Rutherford as Laurent and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as Tallan, projected authority. But all of the singing was marred by very poor intelligibility. Without the surtitles, hardly a word of the French could be understood.

A major contributor to this was the sheer density of the orchestral music. Much of the time, there is thickness of texture of middle-to-low strings and brass that’s not so far from Wagner at his heaviest and Robin Ticciati and the London Philharmonic Orchestra played a great deal of it at full throttle, with the clarity of individual lines blurred into a wall of sound. It was thrilling stuff, but very hard on the singers, especially when placed towards the rear of the set. Karis Tucker, who sang Thurza with commendable emotional charge, suffered particularly when singing in the middle-to-low parts of her mezzo range. In Act 1, the music felt very much one-paced; things improved in Acts 2 and 3, where the action becomes less frantic and Ticciati allowed individual instrumental lines to shine through more. Overall, however, we needed more dynamic contrast and more transparency. I was also left wondering about the decision to use the original French libretto rather than German (the language of the first performance) or English (the language most used since), either of which might have been easier on the singers.

James Rutherford (Laurent), Philip Horst (Pasko), Karis Tucker (Thurza) and Chorus
© Richard Hubert Smith

Where the performance won out was as a piece of drama. Director Melly Still and designer Ana Inés Jabares-Pita have created a coastal setting with a complex and inventive mixture of painted sets, video projections, nets, choreography of four dancers and a few carefully chosen props. It’s brilliantly atmospheric and by the middle of Act 2, I was completely caught up in the tense narrative.

So is The Wreckers an unjustly forgotten masterpiece? In dramatic terms, absolutely. But to convince one about the true merits of this opera, the score deserves a more nuanced, more transparent performance than it received last night.