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Dame Ethel SMYTH (1858-1944)
The Boatswain’s Mate, A Comedy in One Act and Two Parts (1916) Complete Opera (Edition prepared by Dr Valerie Langfield [87:53]
The Boatswain’s Mate (extracts) [25:35]
The Wreckers: Overture [8:23]
Nadine Benjamin (Mrs Waters), Edward Lee (Harry Benn), Jeremy Huw Williams (Ned Travers), Simon Wilding (Policeman), Ted Schmitz (The Man), Rebecca Louise Dale (Mary Ann) and Chorus.
The Symphony Orchestra/Ethel Smyth (extracts, Wreckers)
Lontano Ensemble/Odaline de la Martinez
rec. 1916 (extracts), 1930 (Wreckers), 2015/16, St Mary's Church, Walthamstow, London (full opera)
RETROSPECT OPERA RO001 [47:12+73:44]

It's a couple of years since the British based record label Retrospect Opera released this, the fourth of Ethel Smyth's six operas, The Boatswain's Mate. It's a significant issue in that this is the work's first complete recording. Her most well-known opera, The Wreckers is, as far as I know, the composer's only other one to have previously made it to disc. This is my first encounter with Retrospect Opera. They're a small organization who devote themselves "to researching and recording 18th, 19th and early 20th century operas and related dramatic musical works by British composers". It's highly commendable that they’re prepared to mine this rich heritage of dramatic musical gems, much of it sadly faded into the mists of time.

Smyth had been a graduate of the Leipzig Conservatory. In 1910 she became heavily involved in the suffragette movement, inspired by a rousing speech delivered by Emmeline Pankhurst. Her "The March of the Women" of 1911 became an anthem for the movement. This, and her song "1910" commemorating the disastrous events of Black Friday, were incorporated into the overture of The Boatswain's Mate. The composer, together with others, served a two month prison sentence for throwing stones through windows. On her release, she travelled to just outside Cairo for a period, to distance herself from the movement. Here she composed the opera. After an aborted attempt to première it in Frankfurt, due to the intervention of the war, it was first heard in London at the Shaftesbury Theatre, with the composer herself conducting.

A short opera by normal standards, it's unusually divided into two stylistically very differing parts. The first is made up of vocal numbers interspersed with spoken dialogue, very much in the English light opera tradition of Gilbert and Sullivan, whilst the second consists of a mostly continuous stretch of music with sung dialogue. This part feels much weightier, with the influences being Wagner and Strauss. Set to her own libretto, the plot is simple. Harry Benn, the Boatswain tries to win the hand of the landlady of the local pub Mrs Waters. He enlists the assistance of his friend Ned Travers. In short, a botched fake burglary, with the intended outcome of Harry rescuing Mrs Waters, actually results in Ned and Mrs Travers becoming romantically entangled.

I found the music light, airy and tuneful, with emotions running from the humorous through to anger and passion. Some familiar folk tunes are embroidered into the fabric, such as the famous "Oh Dear! What can the matter be?", "Bushes and Briars" and "Lord Randall".

The set is supplemented by two historical extracts. Although the opera received a complete BBC Radio broadcast in April 1926, several extracts were recorded ten years earlier with the composer at the helm. One of these is included here. I'm amazed by its sound quality. The other historical inclusion is a 1930 recording of the overture to The Wreckers, also conducted by the composer, again a valuable addendum.

Retrospect Opera secured the services of the Cuban-American composer and conductor Odaline de la Martinez for the project. She's renowned for her championship of Smyth, having recorded a selection of the composer's orchestral music for Chandos, and the only recording of The Wreckers in 1994 for the defunct Conifer label, which I see has just been reissued by this label. I'm impressed by the fine singers that have been amassed for this latest recording - Nadine Benjamin (Mrs Waters), Edward Lee (Harry Benn), Jeremy Huw Williams (Ned Travers), Simon Wilding (Policeman). Equally gratifying is the intimate atmosphere generated by the Lontano Ensemble, a chamber group consisting of wind quintet, percussion, and single strings. St. Mary's Church, Walthamstow, London provides a sympathetic acoustic, ideal for a group such as this, as it allows the detail of Smyth's ingenious and colourful scoring to emerge with vibrant clarity. I also love the way the engineers have balanced the singers and instrumentalists in the mix. This lovely production is bolstered by some well-written notes by Christopher Wiley and the inclusion of a full libretto.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: John France

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