The Wreckers

Reviewer's ratinge

Glyndebourne Festival stages a rarely performed opera, The Wreckers, by British composer Ethel Smyth. It is a landmark production, the first opera by a female composer to be presented at the Festival. Although the librettist Henry Brewster (Smyth’s one-time lover) originally wrote in French, a cut and altered version in German was premiered in Leipzig in 1906 (this was later translated into English). Glyndebourne performs the uncut version in its original French glory for the first time, reincluding missing fragments orchestrated by Tom Poster.

The story of The Wreckers has hints of Britten’s Peter Grimes. It reveals the harsh and brutal realities of fishermen’s lives in an impoverished Cornish fishing village as almost the entire population depends on wrecking for survival. They lure storm-bound ships onto the rocky coast, including their leader and pastor Pasko. The only spots of hope lie with Pasko’s young wife Thurza, and her lover Marc, as they light beacons to divert the ships to safety. However, as traitors of society, Thurza and Marc are sentenced to death and left to drown.

Directed by Melly Still (director of Janáček’s Rusalka (2009) and Dvořák’s The Cunning Little Vixen (2012)), this production of The Wreckers continues her reputation for creating visually impressive pieces. The play starts with black, stormy sea waves projected onto the back of the stage (video designer: Akhila Krishnan) which sets the ominous setting of a stormy night by the shore. Set designer Ana Inés Jabares-Pita does well to transport the audience to the dark world of the ruthless village; fluttering nets via artificial wind send us to the coast, whilst the projections to show multiple fishermen’s faces, emanating the uniformity of a small village. Jabares-Pita also does well with the costume design, keeping it modern and relatable.

A mezzo-soprano, Karis Tucker is brilliant in her portrayal of the rebellious and strong-willed Thurza. Tucker’s singing of “daily bread tastes of blood,” leaves golden echoes and is most deserving of an applaud. Lauren Fagan as the vengeful Avis in her pink leggings is extremely convincing in her acting, and her sonorous voice is outstanding. Thurza’s boyfriend, Marc, played by Rodrigo Porras Garulo, took some time to warm to, but the love duets with Thurza in Act 2 and 3 are thoroughly moving. Thurza’s husband, pastor Pasko portrayed by Philip Horst, unfortunately, had no highlights. Together with Lauren Fagan, the chorus was superbly brilliant. Their forceful and threatening voices portray the fear of social ostracism realistically.

The overture of the opera reminds us of a film score in its orchestral grandeur but from time to time, we hear passing associations with other musical masterpieces such as traces of Wagner’s Der fliegende Hollander at the start of the overture, and Bizet’s Carmen in Act 1, and Debussy’s La Mer in the prelude of Act 2, which renders it slightly disappointing; these similarities mean that the opera lacks a strong personality of its own. Nevertheless, Conductor Robin Ticciati leads London Philharmonic Orchestra with much emotional nuance and dynamism, and the orchestra provides great depth of tone.

This production of The Wreckers is worth watching especially for the transportive projections on the back screen and the chorus of the villagers.