Dame Ethel Smyth: Suffragette

I’ve seen two operas by Dame Ethel Smyth presented tonight by Opera 5 under the heading “Suffragette”. The title feels especially apt for a composer I’d never encountered before, who was not only active in seeking the vote for women (making her an actual suffragette) but who was daring creatively as well, writing her own libretti for her operas, a trail-blazer of a composer who lived from 1858 to 1944. Opera 5 are to be commended for bringing someone new before us on the stage, and apt for a company whose leadership—Artistic Director Aria Umezawa and General Director Rachel Krehm—is female.

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Alexandra Smithers as pub-owner Mrs Waters (photo: Emily Ding)

Tonight’s program included two works : Fête Galante (1921-22) and The Boatswain‘s Mate (1913-14), presented at Theatre Passe Muraille’s main space. Opera 5 gave us quite a spectacular presentation, using a small orchestra of a dozen players, led by Evan Mitchell.

Of the two operas, The Boatswain’s Mate takes up the biggest portion of the evening. While it’s an earlier work than Fête Galante (which has some ambitious elements to its dramaturgy that are genuinely experimental for its time) I’m sure Opera 5 presented them in this sequence knowing that Fête Galante is not entirely successful in its experiments, not as good a piece of theatre as the rollicking Boatswain’s Mate, a work that includes some dialogue, and numbers with full stops allowing for audience applause. And applaud we did, delighted with the performances.

The Boatswain’s Mate is clearly the work of a feminist, a story ahead of its time. When we meet Harry Benn (Asitha Tennekoon) , who seems sympathetic in his desire to marry pub owner Mrs Waters (Alexandra Smither), we might mistake him for the hero of the story. But both the composer and Mrs Waters have other ideas, as neither the story nor its genre follow the usual expectations. We meet Ned Travers (Jeremy Ludwig), who conspires with Harry to fake a robbery designed to persuade Mrs Waters that she needs Harry. But they’re surprised by the independence of Mrs Waters who refuses to fit anyone’s stereotype, meeting the burglar with a bat and lots of backbone.  It’s much funnier than what I’ve described here, a very physical story vividly brought to life by Director Jessica Derventis. In the middle of the night Mrs Waters has to deal with a crew of pub-crawlers, but they’re no match for Mrs Waters.

Smither has ample opportunity to show off both her voice and her dramatic skill, although her numbers aren’t quite as interesting as what Smyth gives poor love-struck Harry to sing, and Tennekoon boldly rises to the challenge.

In Fête Galante Smyth writes in a more advanced through-composed style without any full stops or divisions for numbers, but I found that the resulting music is not as interesting, in the trade-offs she made to unify the whole. The story, too, is challenging to pull off, a somewhat melodramatic tale incorporating commedia dell’arte elements reminding me a wee bit of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci in the way illusion and reality collide in a story of love & jealousy. The singing was lovely even if the requirements of the score did not push the singers as far as The Boatswain’s Mate. But Elizabeth Polese and Jonathan MacArthur were very effective together, and Alan MacDonald showed off a lovely baritone sound.

“Suffragette”, consisting of these two works from Dame Ethel Smyth will be repeated at Theatre Passe Muraille’s main space June 24 & 25.

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