Something splendid is happening in England. For many years, the nineteenth and early twentieth century operatic and strictly comic-operatic (excluding, thus, the opéras-bouffes of G&S et al) works of British composers have been all but ignored by producers and recording companies. Now, in the 21st century, such pieces seem to be being rediscovered by growing groups of enthusiasts, and gradually transferred on to disc in fresh (and often first) recordings. Cheshire’s Victorian Opera has been the leader in the field, with full recordings of such pieces as The Maid of Artois, Robin Hood and Lurline, but they are not alone in the field. The latest welcome addition to the ranks of operatic lifesavers is Retrospect Opera, whose 2015 recording of Ethel Smyth’s 1-acter The Boatswain’s Mate had somehow missed my net until now. This piece, premiered in 1916, is, of course, from a different era and in a different fach to that of brief nineteenth-century pieces such as Jessy Lea (Macfarren) or Ages Ago or the parlour operettas of Virginia Gabriel and her ilk, and, for me, falls somewhere between German’s Tom Jones and Britten’s Albert Herring in ambition and tone. Albeit on a smaller scale.
This afternoon, I have listened to The Boatswain’s Mate in toto for the first time. Because Retrospect, all power to them, have issued it in an in toto version. Dialogue and music.
It is an odd piece. Wiser than I have pontificated on its merits and shape (and the excellent booklet with the record, plus Smyth’s voluminous writings, will help one understand all that), all I need to say here is, I feel the original tale was as odd a choice for operaticisation as Albert Herring. I would have expected a jolly little tale like this to have been illustrated more in the Cox and Box or The Zoo style. But it has been handed half-an-operatic treatment. Only half, because the first part is music and dialogue (ie comic opera), the second part sung through. Personally, I much prefer the second part, even though Smyth’s libretto (or whoever’s, but that’s another story) is nicely colloquial and sparky in its dialogue, if super-conventional in action. The story is simple. The retired Mate of the title sets up a fake robbery to kid a widder inkeeperess into his arms. The plan backfires and the lady gets sweet on the bloke who ‘played’ the robber. You can imagine the original tale, dramatised, as a 20 minute curtain-raiser on a programme at a minor Victorian theatre. But Ms Smyth’s music shifts it into a different and more pretentious dimension. My problem with this is that you don’t quite know where you are. Opera? Musical comedy? Comic opera? It is definitely not necessary to fit a work such as this into a conventional box, but … well, whatever it is, it’s a lively little entertainment.
The recording has been carefully and lovingly done. The ‘reduced’ orchestrations are quite outstanding (I worry to think how overwhelming the ‘full’ ones must have been!) and delightfully played, and the performances of the three and a half players are all in keeping. I liked best the tenor, Edward Lee, who sang with open, English tones and natural-sounding words. Elsewhere we had a little bit of woof and incomprehensible lyrics.
But Retrospect has seen fit to let us hear, as a bonus, the original cast recordings. The sound, of course, is rather ‘archival’, but we hear exactly the ‘right’ voices. Courtice Pounds, somewhere between singing on the music-halls, and starring as Ali Baba in Chu Chin Chow and Schubert in Lilac Time is Benn, the Mate, the incomparably crisp-and-clear baritone Frederick Ranalow (who actually recorded a stunning Tom Jones) is the fake thief, and the New Zealand soprano Rosina Buckman – between an Isolde and a Musetta – who was a favourite recording artist, partly indeed because of her precise diction, was the widder. Like other archival recordings, these might not make easy listening, but they tell us definitively what this music was written to sound like.
The 2-disc set finishes triumphantly with a restored period recording of the overture to Smyth’s The Wreckers. All I can say is, can I please hear the rest of The Wreckers!
This is a grand project, well conceived and carried out. It brings a work, and a composer, which and who shouldn’t be forgotten or abandoned, back into the public eye. That is the kind of ‘retrospecting’ I like and admire, and I look forward eagerly to Retrospect Opera’s next offering.
PS: I discover that The Wreckers was recorded in 1994, by the same conductor. Hello, ebay...
The Boatswain's Mate can be got through www.retrospectopera.org.uk/CD_Sales.html