Ethel Smyth’s opera? ‘A twisted gynaecological version of Jurassic Park’

Ethel Smyth’s opera? ‘A twisted gynaecological version of Jurassic Park’


norman lebrecht

August 07, 2015

The idea of reviving The Wreckers by the militant English feminist could only have come from a US college with money to burn and no sense of what to do with our limited time on earth.

Nothing daunted, our bold Manhattan operaphiles, Elizabeth Frayer & Shawn E Milnes, ventured out to Bard College to witness the restoration of this long-forgotten monstrosity. Elizabeth came away singing the scenery. Shawn was a little harsher:

I had never been to Bard College before last Sunday.  Nor had I ever seen the Frank Gehry designed Richard B Fisher Center for Performing Arts there.  It looks like a giant cybernetic insect vulva.  And I mean that in the best possible way as it added to the experience greatly and strangely felt very apt. A line of tiny people, leaving the sunlight and entering the womb of some gigantic metallic prehistoric HR Giger nightmare half submerged in the earth to view its unborn and developing foetus.

Like some sort of twisted gynecological version of Jurassic Park.

And that is a bit what The Wreckers itself felt like.  A not fully developed alien hybrid foetus.

Read their full review here.



  • Halldor says:

    Yet Gustav Mahler thought it was pretty damn’ good.

    Hmm…who to believe?

  • Brian b says:

    So basically they should spend their time performing Aida, Boheme, and Carmen instead of taking chances and reviving forgotten operas. You won’t always strike gold but hearing rarely heard works is good for the art form. Dross or not, judging from the one commercial recording (which I guess you feel should never have been made) Wreckers has good, interesting things in it. Perhaps enterprising companies should have let Anna Bolena or Les Troyens moulder away as well. No opera can truly be judged until it’s performed. I’d go further and hope someone will take on Smyth’s Der Wald, the only opera to date by a female composer ever performed at the Met. Though that will soon change with Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin.

  • Albert Imperato says:

    The humor of the original review is utterly lacking in your intro, Norman. To disparage artists and organizations that take risks is anathema to the spirit of art. Yes, my company publicizes Bard SummerScape, and yes I can’t be objective about anything said about a client, but in this case I feel compelled to clearly state to you how disgusted I am by your mean-spiritedness and lack of taste. I should also add that Sir Thomas Beecham had high regard for this opera, and that Tchaikovsky and Debussy both admired Smyth’s compositional gifts.

  • John Borstlap says:

    How odd that neither review mentions the music, or addressed the obvious questions: how did the music express the stage situations? How were the singers’ parts woven into the textures? Was it through-composed with or without ‘numbers’, and what was the relation to contemporary music of the time? Was there influence of Wagner, or of other composers, from the continent or England? (After all, it was the time of rampant Wagnerism.) Nothing of the sort. The closest the 2nd review comes to talk about the composer is: “Now, composer Ethel Smyth was an amazing woman,..”

    • John says:


    • V.Lind says:

      Now, now…Elizabeth “enjoyed [Sky Ingram’s] range and diversity”! Shawn was “grabbed…completely” by “moments…especially the choral sections.” Also, “all of the singers were good.” That’s about as trenchant as any musical observation I have ever read from this pair.

      Aren’t they the rookie opera-goers? Writing about the genre from the bliss of ignorance? Isn’t that what the internet is for? I must admit I’ve read reviews of theirs that have made me wish I was in New York and able to go to what they had seen, though I suspect in some cases I would be out the door after half an hour. Can’t tell, though, as they have nothing, ever, to communicate that remotely lets you know about the music. They have a good eye for a set and costumes, and staging in general, and seem able to follow a plot.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Quote: Elizabeth “enjoyed [Sky Ingram’s] range and diversity”! Shawn was “grabbed…completely” by “moments…especially the choral sections.” Also, “all of the singers were good.” Unquote. This seems to be about the performance, not the music as such. Because Mrs Smyth was a female composer, a rarety in those times when women were considered incapable of writing good music, attention for the music would have been appropriate, I think. I listened to the ouverture to the Wreckers on YouTube and thought it was music as good as any excellent male composer of the time who wanted to project gripping drama, a generous dose of bombast, plus some lyricism, and wanted to bang on the table with his fist. I think this was a rather dangerous lady…. would not like to have an argument with her, if her fists were as fiery as her writing for the heavvy brass.

    • John Borstlap says:

      I forgot that these ladies were supposed to listen and watch entirely innocent of expertise, which is in itself not a bad thing, because expert reviews can be incredibly dull and uninviting, weighing-down excellent productions with mouldy jargon. True, these reviews were lively and pleasant to read.

      Debussy already – at some stage – advocated reviewing by people who did not know anything of music, because they would not have the usual prejudices which seem to be the basic apparatus of the reviewing craft.