Opera 5’s staging of two one-acts, Fête Galante and The Boatswain’s Mate, is probably Ethel Smyth’s (1858–1944) operatic debut in Toronto. The general and artistic directors of the company Rachel Krehm and Aria Umezawa as well as the director Jessica Derventzis and conductor Evan Mitchell deserve kudos for shedding light on this unexplored corner of the early twentieth century creation. Both librettos show their age, though — former is based on a story by Maurice Baring (read it here), and latter is adopted from a story by W.W. Jacobs (which in turn you can read here). Smyth adapted both. Umezawa rewrote the dialogues from the Mate libretto and that, together with a filmic, naturalistic direction of an ensemble of capable young singer-actors who unreservedly advocated for each of the characters salvaged the piece and gave it new life.
Fête Galante was a different story. It’s a fast one acter on betrayal and mistaken identities and courting outside your marital unit. There are characters in it called the King and the Queen as well as characters from commedia dell’arte. It’s more oneiric and fantastical than naturalistic, yet it mostly got a naturalistic directorial treatment. Its absurd and comedic elements probably needed drawing out. As your regular old naturalistic narrative, it didn’t quite tick. Perhaps if it was treated as akin to an opera like, say, Pelléas, the engine might have revved up.
It was, luckily, followed by the Mate which straight from scene one blossomed into a full-blown comedic opera–in this case, in the chamber orchestra score reduction obtained, as Mitchell explains in the program, thanks to Retrospect Opera. The story is of a pub owner Mrs. Waters (Alexandra Smither), her persistent suitor and customer Harry (Asitha Tennekoon), and a random pub goer Ned (Jeremy Ludwig) who’s recruited by Harry to pretend to be a burglar so Harry can fight him off and “save” Mrs. Waters. In a large-ish cast of young singers, there wasn’t a single weak link – a rare occurrence. A group of drunk revelers barged into the pub half-way into the proceedings, and everything was sung and done with impeccable timing and just the right kind of rowdiness and noise (the revelers were Kevin Myers, Alan MacDonald, Jean-Philippe McClish, Elizabeth Polese, Eugenia Dermentzis and Michael Dickey, who plays Mrs. Waters’ waitress on staff). If I had to pick a dramatic standout among the principals, it would be tenor Asitha Tennekoon who has a gift for physical comedy rarely found among opera singers. His smooth tenor all the while never wavered. Alexandra Smither was equally impressive — vocally as well as in her acting: here is a singer who is already in possession of a fully developed instrument and undeniable charisma. Jeremy Ludwig as Ned too struck the right note with his character and while maintaining the required supply of goofiness never fell into caricature.
Mrs. Waters discovers the awkward “burglar” Ned in her pub before the plot by the two men could even hatch and after Ned confesses everything, they concoct a plan on their own for Harry (fast asleep on guard by the cat flap). She leads Harry to believe that she had killed the house intruder with a baseball bat, which gives the tenor even more room to exercise his comedic gifts. A policeman gets involved and after the resolution of the farce, and some additional flirting, Mrs. Waters agrees to see Ned again. She’s again alone in her inn when waitress Mary Ann arrives and the two sit down to talk over what happened since they last saw each other. Curtain.
Ethel Smyth’s music in the Mate is certainly not along the lines of Puccini–it’s not particularly melodic or emotional except when she’s quoting, her own suffragette anthem The March of Women composed for the Women’s Social and Political Union, for example, or folk melodies–but it’s neither along the lines of the Second Viennese School either. It’s tonal, if ruggedly so, often chromatic and unrepetitive and eager to experiment with the pairing of instrument and voice and with instrumental solos. The transition between spoken and sung text worked well.
And while Smyth herself had a fascinating life, the libretto for the Mate, which turns the smart female protagonist soup-brained and romantically interested in a hapless stranger who broke into her house, resorts to some implausible old tropes on women. Consent is important throughout, which I suppose is new–and having the romantic couple in the making not romance each other immediately, but agree to meet and get to know each other later (Mrs. Waters has a business to run after all) is a nice twist. But imagine if Smyth had worked with a libretto that actually reflected at least some of her own life: defied her militaristic father’s wishes, did what she wanted to do; doggedly pursued music education in UK and Europe against all odds; as a young person met and worked with Brahms; spent two months in jail after being arrested for breaking a window at a suffragist protest; had affairs with women; was friends with Virginia Woolf; worked as a nurse during World War 1; became a successful writer later in life.
But I think we are still waiting for operas with female characters of even remotely that kind of scope. A lot of the contemporary composers still love the victimized or dead woman in opera, and even if you’re a singer specializing in contemporary music, you’re probably still likelier to sing Ophelia than a woman with any kind of agency. So it’s a question that still lingers. While Smyth put some of her politics in other musical forms–in choral piece titled 1910, for ex, which her obit describes as the “hullabaloo of a Parliament Square riot”–in choosing her operatic librettos she resorted to the paths more travelled. Mrs. Waters has rare pizzazz, but up to a point. We’ll relish it up to that point.
Smyth’s opus, meanwhile, remains of interest and worth exploring in the twenty-first century. Thanks Opera 5 for the discovery.