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Dame Ethel SMYTH (1858-1944)
Fête Galante – A Dance-Dream in One Act (1921-22) [45:14]
Excerpts from Fête Galante, The Boatswain’s Mate, Entente Cordiale [9:32]
Liza LEHMANN (1862-1918)
The Happy Prince, after the story by Oscar Wilde (1908) [21:46]
Charmian Bedford (soprano), Carolyn Dobbin (mezzo soprano), Mark Milhofer (tenor)
Alessandro Fisher (tenor), Felix Kemp (baritone), Simon Wallfisch (baritone)
Felicity Lott (reciter), Valerie Langfield (piano) (Prince)
Lontano Ensemble/Odaline de la Martinez (Fête)
The Light Symphony Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult (excerpts)
rec. St Mary’s Church, Walthamstow, 2018 (Fête); University of Surrey, Guildford, 2019 (Prince)
Smyth excerpts from HMV DB3762, March 1939

Ethel Smyth called Fête Galante ‘A Dance-Dream’ and if that suggests a diaphanous piece of whimsy – anyone less diaphanous and whimsical than the redoubtable Smyth it would be hard to imagine – that’s to overlook the work’s origins in Commedia dell’arte. This one-act opera of 1921-22 was composed to a text described as a ‘poetic version by Edward Shanks, after Maurice Baring’s story’. Premiered in 1923 at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre by the British National Opera Company, it was taken by that ensemble to London’s Covent Garden the following week. The work was subsequently arranged as an orchestral suite and expanded to a ballet in 1932 which, Christopher Wiley and Valerie Langford remind one in their astute booklet notes, was Smyth’s original intention, given its origin as a ‘Ballet Operette’.

This story is one of love as a game, within set rules, and the punishment for overstepping the mark. It is, in terms of puppetry and masque, a kind of La Règle du jeu, though one without any political or satiric implications. Perhaps the influence of Diaghilev, which had suffused the European stage since the early 1910s, had an influence, direct or subliminal, on Smyth’s work. But whether this is so or not, and the notes state there’s no evidence that Smyth ever attended a performance by the Ballet Russe, there is still something very theatrical-balletic about the work.

This first-ever recording uses Smyth’s ‘B’ version, with stripped-back ensemble of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, timpani, and strings, lining up 3-3-2-2-1. This is more than at the Birmingham premiere – – but less than at Covent Garden the week later, where there were eight First Violins and six seconds and so on.

Lasting 45 minutes the work is not without charm and engaging effects. There is a baroque-oriented Sarabande overture followed by a more luscious Musette, with an arresting horn fanfare. The work’s various panels seem, in a small number of places, to evoke G & S rather more than Stravinsky (I’m thinking of the Puppet Quartet, track 5) but the baroque ethos, which is not the acidic neo-baroque ethos of Parisian composers of the time, remains pervasive and indeed the lingua franca of the work. The delightful Madrigal and ensuing Love Scene add strength to the central panels of the work and Smyth uses the limited wind instruments well, notably in the more torrid elements of the work. The Heigho rusticity of the music and the solemn funereal close – Pierrot’s body hangs from rafters - are also diverting, similarly broadening the expressive curtain of the music. Fête Galante offers another interesting slant on Smyth’s operatic work. It made me wonder what, with a suitable libretto, she could have done with A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The performances, instrumental and vocal alike, are warmly committed and winning.

Coupled with Smyth’s work is The Happy Prince, a melodrama by another leading woman composer of the time, Liza Lehmann, some four years younger than Smyth. She abridged Oscar Wilde’s short story for her work, assigning the role to a narrator with piano accompaniment. The latter is rather conventional and also rather sparse with some plangent romantic chording and wispy commentary on the text, none of which tax Valerie Langfield. The significant addition of Felicity Lott as reciter adds lustre to the performance though, in all honesty, the vogue for melodrama or, as Lehmann termed it, musical ‘recitation’, has not really survived the last 110 years.

As a pendant we also hear the 78s that Adrian Boult recorded in 1939 with the Light Symphony Orchestra for HMV; Minuet from Fête Galante, the Interlude from The Boatswain’s Mate and Entente Cordiale. They’ve all been reissued before but it was a fine gesture to include them here.

The booklet and gatefold arrangement are sensitively and attractively produced and a pleasure to read.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Jim Westhead

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