I feel I must fight for my music, because I want women to turn their minds to big and difficult jobs; not just to go on hugging the shore, afraid to put out to sea.
Ethel Smyth inspired. Composer, author, individualist, the rebel from Surrey lived out her long, extraordinary life in the harsh glare of attention and publicity. Ignoring her detractors — and they were legion — Smyth struck out on a brave, ferociously independent course. Dvořák, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Clara Schumann, Brahms, all met and encouraged her in her younger days at the Leipzig Conservatory where she studied composition, much against her stern, soldierly father’s wishes. Thousands attended the premiere of her first major work, the Mass in D, at London’s Royal Albert Hall despite the sniping of dismissive reviewers.
Close friend and supporter of Emmeline Pankhurst, the invincible Women’s Social and Political Unionist made bold headlines after hurling a well-aimed rock through priggish Secretary of State for the Colonies Lewis Harcourt’s front window in 1912. Turning to writing after losing her hearing, Smyth, who was rumoured to have had affairs with a long list of prominent women, was embraced by Virginia Wolfe who enthusiastically corresponded with the elder fellow free-thinker. Few publishers bothered to read Smyth’s manuscripts.
Critics may have scoffed, but Smyth, invariably assailed as being both too womanly in her attitudes to self-expression and inadequately feminine, carried on.
And yet, for all her remarkable achievements, including the awarding of an O.B.E., first female composer to be granted the honour, Dame Ethel Smyth, dead in 1944 at the age of 86, is seldom spoken of today in anything other than academic terms and her music rarely performed.
Redressing a long-time injustice, feisty indie producer Opera 5 pays homage to a genuine pioneer with a spirited salute, singers, orchestra and audience all assembled under the snappy banner, Suffragette. A pair of compact chamber operas make up the unique program; Smyth’s short, quasi-Baroque pastiche entitled, Fête Galante; followed by her boisterous, rollicking farce, The Boatswain’s Mate.
Taken in order, Fête Galante, set by Smyth in 1921 based on a short story by friend and author Maurice Baring, tells a curiously deconstructed tale.
In a secluded palace garden, a group of idle courtiers are amusing themselves at a moonlit soirée. A masque is staged before the King and Queen featuring a visiting commedia dell’arte cast. The show begins. Pierrot, the eternal sad clown, is tricked into thinking that sly Harlequin has seduced his true love, Columbine. A struggle ensues. Pierrot is slain. Columbine is bereft. The King applauds. Spurning his regal partner, he invites Columbine to dance. The pretty actress tactfully declines, skipping off with the evening’s Harlequin. The King and Queen quarrel. There is clearly no love binding their two thrones together.
Recit by aria, reality and make-believe entangle. Columbine pledges her heart to leading man Pierrot but Pierrot will not listen, believing Harlequin to be his rival. Columbine is distraught. Harlequin whisks her away. The glittery revelries show signs of tarnish.
The Queen meets with a secret Lover. Columbine spying them in the darkness, mistakes the shadowy suitor for Pierrot. Filled with hurt and fury, she promptly reports the incident to the King. The King, though suspecting the Queen has betrayed him also, demands proof of infidelity. Accusations flare. Columbine and Pierrot clash, hapless players drawn deep into a real-life drama. Columbine lashes out, thinking Pierrot false. Pierrot grievously wounded by her claim, agonizes in silence. The King confronts him. Desperate for release from his suffering, Pierrot falsely confesses to being with the Queen. The King has him arrested, commanding the evening’s festivities resume. An air of strained merrymaking settles over the garden. Pierrot escapes captivity, plunging a dagger into his heart. Columbine screams. A ghastly stillness falls over the scene.
The transformation of fiction into fact is not the most self-evident of themes to flag as liberationist when relating it to the evening’s first instalment of Suffragette but the shattering of the status quo most assuredly is. Lift the curtain of convention, Dame Ethel would have us know, and all is not what it seems. Men and women cannot be possessed, particularly not in the name of love. The notion of blind devotion is as illusionary as a fairytale. And invariably ends in catastrophe.
Like Smyth’s self-admittedly Stravinsky-influenced neoclassical score, vocal arrangements in this fretful narrative are unapologetically romantic, a quality much in evidence in the singing here.
Elizabeth Polese is an impetuous, headstrong Columbine; Alan MacDonald, a moody counterpointed Pierrot. Jonathan MacArthur is a spritely, playful Harlequin. Jean-Philippe McClish appears as the bewildered cuckolded King. In one of the more resonant moments in director Jessica Derventzis’ somewhat amorphous mod production, Kevin Myers as the Lover and Eugenia Dermentzis as the Queen gently encapsulate all the bittersweetness of their relationship. The couple’s tender rendition of Smyth’s gloriously romantic duet, Hark! The music is close of the day enchants.
Shifting from sombre musical morality play to barbed satire after intermission, Opera 5 casts off with a bright, upbeat presentation of Smyth’s irrepressible comedy, The Boatswain’s Mate. A popular hit when it debuted in postwar London in 1914, the brisk, one-act farce still possesses immense appeal.
Harry Benn likes his pint. If only the roving seaman could convince Mrs. Waters, widowed publican at his local, The Outlaw, to marry him. Free beer would flow. There is only one problem. After listening to Harry’s fifth tipsy proposal in two weeks, Mrs. Waters is in no mood to be courted, today or in the future, by him or anyone else. Owning and operating a tavern occupies her every waking minute. Harry’s scheme, it seems, is sunk. Enter Ned Travers, a penniless ex-soldier in need of refreshment. Harry senses a kindred spirit. Suddenly, an idea pops into his head. Mrs. Waters says she has no need of a man. But if a burglar broke into the pub and Harry raced to the rescue… Well, everyone loves a hero! The promise of easy cash buys Ned’s help. Later that night, with Mrs. Waters asleep in her room, Ned squeezes into The Outlaw through a back window while Harry keeps watch outside. Ned deliberately makes as much noise as he can. Mrs. Waters races downstairs, bat in hand, looking and sounding far more threatening than Ned had expected. And much more attractive, too. The time for surrender is clearly at hand. More amused than angered by Ned’s revelation of Harry’s nefarious plan, Mrs. Waters resolves to teach Harry a lesson. A loud crash as Ned bangs on a trashcan. Harry bursts into the bar. Mrs. Waters tricks him into thinking she has killed his partner in crime. Made to dig a grave, Harry panics and summons a policeman only to discover that he has been hoodwinked. Thrown together by the laughable events of the evening, Mrs. Waters and Ned strike up an intimate conversation. Warm smiles and eye catching glances lead to promises to meet again. Ned departs. Mrs. Waters secretly dances with glee.
Economic independence, self-reliance, self-determination — subtext in The Boatswain’s Mate is unambiguous. Smyth delivers her message loud and clear, a principled declaration of the fundamental ideals that would continue to shape the women’s movement far beyond her day. But this is no sermon. Boundless humour displaces proselytizing. The mood of the piece, more operetta or West End show than opera, is breezy and relaxed. Wit and worldly wisdom hold everything in place. Love is re-awakened in the heroine and we are overjoyed.
The sheer exuberance of this production, its sweeping generosity of spirit, is utterly irresistible. Set designer Erin Gerofsky’s pub is as authentic and welcoming as a homecoming, lighting designer Jennifer Lennon’s FX spotlighting every good-natured joke and jest. Theatre Passe Muraille rings with laughter.
Led by conductor Evan Mitchell, Suffragette’s compact 12-musician orchestra plays with tireless energy and brilliance, scene after exuberant scene, though occasionally prone to an arguably over enthusiastic dynamic.
The compositional structure of The Boatswain’s Mate has long been a point of contention with critics. Part 1 of the piece is a mixture of ballads and spoken dialogue. Part 2 is exclusively through-composed. Whether the dichotomy adds to or detracts from the work’s integrity is a debate likely never to be resolved. What is certain, however, is that the music overall is sparkling and gorgeously lyrical. Mitchell and associates play it very well indeed.
Opening with an animated, flag-waving rendition of Smyth’s iconic anthem, The March of the Women, uniquely prefixed as a chorus here, The Boatswain’s Mate quickly gathers vocal momentum and never wanes.
Appearing as Mrs. Waters, Alexandra Smither commands attention from lights up to fade out, singing with superb emotion and articulation. Alone on stage, weary at the end of day, Mrs. Waters’ thoughts turn to the past. What if I were young again, she muses. Smither’s gentle, wistful rendition tugs at the heart.
Asitha Tennekoon plays washed up seafarer, Harry Benn, a scandalous rogue somehow rendered enormously likeable in this skilled singer actor’s hands. Tenor ringing, Tennekoon launches into Harry’s rolling aria, When rocked on the billows, that roughest of pillows, splashing the catchy tune over an altogether captivated audience with salty abandon.
Jeremy Ludwig is loveable bumbler Ned Travers, a decent sort when all is said and sung, shy with the ladies but terribly endearing. A full-bodied baritone with a twinkle in his voice.
Michaela Dickey is Mary-Ann, waitress at The Outlaw and something of a wild one herself. Jean-Phillippe McClish is a muddled policeman. Kevin Myers, Alan MacDonald, Elizabeth Polese and Eugenia Dermentzis are riotous, unruly, stumbling dead drunk visitors to Mrs. Water’s boozy establishment.
Suffragette has its flaws. The double bill is undeniably imbalanced. The Boatswain’s Mate decidedly outcharms Fête Galante. The investment of artistic energy and commitment, however, is abundantly equal. And that is surely more than enough to earn our applause.