29 Dec 2019

Retrospect Opera's new recording of Ethel Smyth's Fête Galante

Writing in April 1923 in The Bookman, of which he was editor, about Ethel Smyth’s The Boatswain’s Mate (1913-14) - the most frequently performed of the composer’s own operas during her lifetime - Rodney Bennett reflected on the principal reasons for the general neglect of Smyth’s music in her native land.

First, he quoted Smyth herself, ‘“in this country the only necessaries of life recognised by our rate-payers are things like drains and water-supply”’, continuing: ‘a second, much less debatable, is that the composer was so indiscreet as to be a woman, and to start composing at a time when the claims of women as creative artists were conceded in literature alone.’ Bennett went on to suggest that Smyth was ahead of her time, ‘since the English are only just emerging from the stage when they preferred their cooks and composers to be foreign, and distrusted any of their countrymen - or women - who attempted anything more solemn than Sullivan’. Finally, he suggested that her preferred genre fuelled further condemnation: ‘most important of all, is that her chief ambition was operatic at a time when England showed even less than the present signs of being addicted to music drama.’

Born in London in 1858, the daughter of one General J.H. Smyth, who did not find his daughter’s determination to pursue a career as a composer either agreeable or appropriate, Smyth travelled in 1877 to study at the Leipzig Conservatoire, and it was in Germany that her early works were favourably received during the 1880s. While she did struggle to get her music heard in England (Robert H. Hull, writing in the September 1930 edition of The English Review in September 1930, blamed ‘vested interests’), she was not without supporters. It’s interesting, though, that even those such as Hull, who set out to present an impartial assessment of Smyth’s work - explicitly rejecting the ‘illogical bias’ and adoption of a ‘concessive standard of values’ by those estimating the achievement of women composers - and who praised operas such as The Wreckers (1902-04) and The Boatswain’s Mate which exhibit ‘the true worth and independence of her thought’, was not able to avoid terms redolent of ‘masculine virtues’, observing the ‘virile characteristics’ and ‘sturdy, forthright’ nature of Smyth’s musical language.

Hull proposed that Smyth’s short opera, or Dance-Dream, Fête Galante (1921-22) marked a significant ‘development in the composer’s harmonic style, and reveals afresh a capacity for sensitive treatment’, concluding that: ‘Ethel Smyth’s genius, by reason of its power and sincerity, contributes strikingly to the music of our time.’ First performed on 4th June 1923 at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, by Thomas Beecham’s recently formed British National Opera Company, Fête Galante was composed during a difficult period when Smyth had begun to lose her hearing; but 1922 was also the year in which she was awarded a DBE for services to music. The opera was well-received: it was seen again a week after the premiere, at Covent Garden, and presented two years later at the Royal College of Music alongside Smyth’s final opera, Entente Cordiale.

All credit, then, to Retrospect Opera, for attempting to remedy the subsequent neglect of Fête Galante with this recording, the company’s seventh release, which follows their issue of The Boatswain’s Mate and the re-release of conductor Odaline de la Martinez’s recording of The Wreckers , which received its first modern professional performance under de la Martinez’s direction at the BBC Proms in 1994.

The libretto of Fête Galante is based upon a short story from a collection by Smyth’s friend, Maurice Baring, Orpheus in Mayfair (1909), the versification of the dramatized version of the tale having been undertaken by the poet Edward Shanks. At first glance the spirit of commedia dell’arte seems evident: the cast list comprises a Columbine, Pierrot and Harlequin, alongside a King and Queen, and a Lover. But, if the title of Smyth’s opera translates literally as ‘elegant party’, then its dramatic reality is altogether more complex and sinister. The commedia’s perennial themes of mistaken identity and jealousy do indeed loom large, but here they take a macabre and uncanny turn. The Queen’s banished Lover returns in a double-disguise - a black cloak masks the Pierrot costume he has donned - and their garden tryst is overseen by both the ‘real’ Pierrot and the latter’s smitten admirer, Columbine. Believing that she has been betrayed, Columbine exposes the Queen’s infidelity to the King. The Lover flees and Pierrot’s silence, when pressed by the monarch to reveal the truth about the Queen’s unfaithfulness, condemns him to execution.

The drama begins in what is described as a ‘moon-lit Watteau garden’. Aristocratic revels en plein air are underway, the entertainments including a puppet-drama and court masquerade. However, tales are enfolded within tales: the marionettes introduced to us in the opening Musettes, which are interweaved between Sarabande movements, are revealed to be puppet-players who simulate the actions of their puppet counterparts (the latter are placed on a ‘slightly raised knoll’ to the rear). Subsequently, the courtly audience slip in and out of disguises - cloaks, masks, costumes. Following the libretto as I listened to the recording, I tried to imagine the opera, with its on-stage and off-stage musicians and singers, ‘in the theatre’: presumably it is almost impossible to determine who is who, who is real/a player? We/the regal on-lookers are told by the puppet quartet that we are ‘in the play’? And, which is the ‘true’ Pierrot?

And, perhaps that’s the point … for, the duplicity and instability of identity lies at the dramatic core of Fête Galante. At the start, the puppet-players mime: “Since in deceit there is much pleasure,/ And since the world is all a cheat,/ Spare, O dancers, a moment’s leisure,/ Watch our pointed brief deceit.” The pleasure soon turns to pain. What musicologist Elizabeth Wood has described as a ‘psychological masquerade’, with a ‘troubling aura of sexual subterfuge which Smyth echoes’, exposes such ‘pleasure’ as morbid and dangerous. Wood - who has contributed greatly to our appreciation of Smyth’s work, life, and the relationship between the two - reminds us that Pierrot tells us, “Fooling’s a grim and dangerous trade”: ‘as it was, in life, for Ethel Smyth, Maurice Baring [… and] others whose ‘deviant’ and illicit sexual identities, roles, behaviors, and expressions society and culture condemned and punished’. [1]

The neoclassical flavour of the score - baroque dances and an unaccompanied madrigal alternate with solo and duo vocal passages which adopt an arioso, speech-melody idiom - is both reflective of some predilections of the period (Poulenc, Stravinsky, da Falla and others composed neoclassical opera ballets around this time) and apt for Smyth’s presentation of multiplicity and instability of identity.

Smyth offered two different orchestrations for small ensemble and here we hear flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, timpani/percussion and strings, with an onstage band (Dominic Saunders, piano; Miloš Milivojevic, concertina; Steve Smith, banjo). The seventeen-strong Lontano Ensemble strikes a vibrant note in the opening Sarabande movements, the individual voices clearly distinguished (we hear prancing clarinet and breezy flute against spiky celli pizzicatos, for example). The strings’ tone is quite grainy and the accents bright; rhythms are imposing but agile. There’s an edgy vibe: occasionally I caught an anachronistic scent of Peter Greenaway. With the entry of the vocal Musette, there is a shift to a more lyrical ambience - “Hushed is the world, faded the light,/ O magic hour, hour of delight,/ Heart against raptured heart beating.” - though there are interesting harmonic nuances and the alternation of the dances keeps the listener on their toes. I was surprised at the fullness of the vocal sound: even if the soloists have joined the chorus, there are apparently only fourteen voices, but the plushness achieved suggests many more.

As the King, Simon Wallfisch’s vibrato-inflected surges sound rather sinister, as he attempts to ‘claim’ Columbine for the second dance; Charmian Bedford’s response perfectly captures both the indignant pride and unnatural movements of the ‘puppet’. Rich inner instrumental voices slyly colour the Queen’s profession of support for Pierrot. When Columbine departs with Alessandro Fisher’s Harlequin, the viola seeming to belie the earnestness of Carolyn Dobbins’ professions: how could Columbine turn “From such a handsome, melancholy love/ For any other!”, the Queen sympathises - defying Wallfisch’s accusation, by turns passionate and portentous, “For me alone, there’s nothing!”, even as she turns to her Lover, “Sir, we are not alone …”.

Bedford brings integrity to Columbine’s suffering, in the face of Pierrot’s indifference and the urgent wooing of Fisher’s Harlequin as he seeks to whirl her from his rival’s arm. De la Martinez keeps the dances swirling forwards, capturing the slightly bitter spirit of ‘play’ and ‘divertissement’, even as drama darkens. The shadows truly fall when baritone Felix Kemp sings Pierrot’s central aria, an abstract meditation on love, introduced by sonorous double bass and pliant strings, the voice ushered in by Andrew Sparling’s seductively improvisatory clarinet. Kemp pays careful attention to both the text and the vocal phrasing, and the woodwind dialogues and viola solo add emotive weight.

Pierrot’s reflections are ironically interrupted by what seems to be a perky, unaccompanied madrigal, but the piquant harmonic juxtapositions and asymmetrical rhythms, no less than the metaphysical conceits of the text (once attributed to John Donne, but now thought to be by William Herbert), which are a perfect representation of the opera’s own doublings, undermine any semblance of ease: “Soul’s joy, now I am gone, and you alone, which cannot be,/ Since I must leave myself with thee and carry thee with me.”

During the garden tryst, tenor Mark Milhofer conveys the Lover’s relaxed romantic ardour which is darkened by a hint of suppressed power and anger. De la Martinez pushes the duet towards a climax of ardour: strings oscillate, a muscular bass line is etched by double bass pizzicato, the instrumental textures are richly layered. Janey Miller’s pointed oboe replaces the clarinet when Kemp’s Pierrot announces his presence and the Lover flees, but the sinuous clarinet returns when the King demands that Pierrot disclose his knowledge: gruff strings and forceful timpani alternate with reedy wind, and the stumbling rhythms undermine the King’s sonorous essay at imperiousness as Wallfisch works the text well.

Poignancy is added in the closing stages by Clare O’Connell’s beautiful cello utterances, which usher in Pierrot’s honest admissions: “Lovers pursue and maidens fly,/ Ghosts that chase a phantom bliss,/ Ask a wiser fool than I/ Where the truth is, where the lie/ In a stolen kiss!” But, such moments of respite and sincerity are brief: de la Martinez rightly strives onwards towards the painful intensity of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance which rounds off the drama with frightening urgency: “Heigho! Ho!/ Hey nonny no!” the singers cry as the timpani howls and Pierrot dies: by his own hand - he is seen to stab himself with the knife intended for his rival Harlequin - or by the hangman’s noose? It is not clear. The closure of the Musette frame offers little consolation.

The companion work offered by Retrospect Opera is Liza Lehmann’s dramatic ‘recitation’, or melodrama, of 1908, The Happy Prince - a musical retelling, spoken by Dame Felicity Lott and accompanied by pianist Valerie Langfield - of Oscar Wilde’s tale. Also included are recordings from 1939 of Sir Adrian Boult conducting The Light Symphony Orchestra in extracts from Fête Galante, The Boatswain’s Mate and Entente Cordiale.

Fête Galante had an after-life: in 1924 Smyth arranged it as an orchestral suite (1924) and later, in 1932, she expanded the opera into a ballet for which Vanessa Bell painted the scenery. On 4th March 1934, The Observer reported that the ‘Queen attended a concert at Albert Hall yesterday afternoon, and for the first time heard Dame Ethel Smyth conduct her “March of the Women”.’ The first public performance of the March had also taken place at the Hall, in 1911, conducted by Smyth; the Observer journalist observed that an ex-suffragette remembered when Smyth (imprisoned for suffragette activities) conducted the March from her prison cell using toothbrush as a baton. The occasion of the 1934 concert was Smyth’s 75th birthday; the second half included Fête Galante, and at the close of the evening, the ‘Queen led the outburst of applause when Dame Ethel was presented with a gigantic wreath of flowers almost as big as herself. She was cheered back to the platform again and again.’

One can only add, “three cheers!” to Retrospect Opera and Odaline de la Martinez for allowing us to enjoy Smyth’s disturbing, dramatic ‘dance-dream’ once again.

Claire Seymour

[1] Elizabeth Wood, ‘The Lesbian in the Opera: Desire Unmasked in Smyth’s Fantasio and Fête Galante’ in eds. Blackmer and Smith, En Travesti: Women, Gender, Subversion, Opera (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), p.296.