ONLINE ONLY! THEATER REVIEW: ‘Wreckers,’ rare opera penned by woman, opens at Bard

“The Wreckers” / Opera by Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) / Bard SummerScape

CONDUCTOR, SCHOLAR, ENGINE of SummerScape, and Bard College President Leon Botstein is a force. His musical accomplishments are impressive, but, in the long run, his impact on the larger world may be more noteworthy. He nudges us not just toward art, but toward rational-moral-cultural sanity–though he might wish to dodge the charge.

His searching out and mounting of worthy forgotten works such as “The Wreckers” is a boot out of conventional-think. (Conventional-think being a tyranny of our current era, perhaps every era.) Furthermore, his fierce advocacy of composers-who-happen-to-be women has added him to my list of males who are female-appreciators, a list headed by the saintly Nicholas Kristof.

“The Wreckers” is about a fictional British sect modeled on historical religious groups who sabotaged warning signals to ships, lured them to destruction, murdered their crews and looted their cargos.

An extended essay in the printed program suggests that Botstein joins composer Ethel Smyth in exposing audiences to people who think they have a pipeline to god, a privilege that trumps all. (Contemporary audiences will be reminded that eventually such an idea usually falls into the hands of beheaders, burners-at-the-stake, misogynists, child-rapists, mass murderers, as well as wreckers–people who trumpet themselves with “God told us to do it!”)

The singers in Bard’s production are top tier. Solid technique is everywhere. Only occasionally does one hear vocal folds come together but refuse to vibrate. Those few moments sound like vocal fatigue. Given a score that rises to climaxes in sustained high notes every few minutes (sung over Wagnerian brass), fatigue might be expected more often.

From where I sat, acting was less discernible, though the abundant red hair and wonderfully free body language of Sky Ingram as Avis, spoke her character eloquently.

The chorus in this opera functions as a pungent factor; it is, in fact, a character. Chorus Master James Bagwell has brought a huge group of big voices to disciplined mastery.

Visually the production is stunning (design by Erhard Rom). The opening set features the mast of a destroyed ship, which leans into the blue-gray space like a wounded crucifix. Giant human shadows on the back wall hover over scenes. Rectangular, slatted cargo boxes are piled into the sky, offering limitless levels for the cast to use. The boxes, with their vertical slats, create a flexible pallet of lines (sometimes internally lit). The boxes, along with long boards, bring to mind a Braque painting. They morph into a mountaintop, a storm cloud, a cave with boxy stalactites and stalagmites, and finally into a giant wave that descends over the ill-fated lovers. The lovers are each bound to—what else? A cargo box. Exquisite, emotional lighting bathes every scene and clarifies who, among the crowd, is singing.

In opera, understanding words is always a problem with an unfamiliar work. The supertitles above the stage are difficult to read and not much help. (Besides, though reading is a wonderful thing, no one comes to the theater to do it.)

Most pleasurable perhaps are the orchestrations. One of Smyth’s frequent climactic sequences can dissolve into a crystalline duet for two clarinets, an English horn solo, a harp surprise, or some bars of lovely woodwind transparency, an instrumental conversation with percussion rumbling under.

The composer’s most intriguing melodic moment comes with a modal love aria for the tenor. It has a hint of attractive early 20th-century modernism, as does the orchestral introduction to Act III with its painterly impressionism.

In the end, I did not much care what happened to these lovers. It’s difficult to know why. Voice-casting above type? The composer/librettist milking of a love scene beyond audience comfort? The too-frequent rises to musical climax? Questionable prosody? Don’t know. But, in spite of all that, this production gives an interesting, neglected work every chance at becoming part of the general opera repertoire.

“The Wreckers” at Bard runs through August 2nd. For tickets, call box office at 845-758-7900.

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