Smyth Der Wald Resonus

Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)
Der Wald (1899-1901)
Natalya Romaniw (soprano) – Röschen
Claire Barnett-Jones (mezzo-soprano) – Iolanthe
Robert Murray (tenor) – Heinrich
Andrew Shore (baritone) – A Peddler
Morgan Pearse (baritone) – Count Rudolf    
Matthew Brook (bass) – Peter
Rebecca Lea (soprano) – A Youth
Andrew Rupp (baritone) – First Huntsman
BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Orchestra/John Andrews
rec. 2023, Studio 1, Maida Vale Studios, London
Text included
Resonus RES10324 [66]

Ethel Smyth: I’ve tried. I’ve reviewed her whimsical Fête Galante, ‘a Dance-Dream in One Act’ (review) as well as The Prison, the so-called ‘Symphony for soprano, bass-baritone, chorus and orchestra’ (review), which completely defeated me (the text isn’t hers and is abysmal, admittedly),  and I’ve reviewed swathes of her chamber music and even gone right back to her Suite for Strings, Op. 1a (review). I appreciate that some people rate her Mass in D quite highly and, to a lesser extent, her Double Concerto for violin and horn which has received recordings and a number of radio broadcasts over the last couple of decades. In the main, though, I find her music Leipzig-and-spritzer, to half-reference a rather better joke.   

Now, however, it’s back to her stage works with this première recording of her one-act opera Der Wald, composed between 1899 and 1901 and first staged in Berlin, where anti-British sentiment was high, not least due to the Boer War. The text in this recording is Smyth’s own English translation of the original German, written by Henry Brewster, her long-term male friend, who was also responsible for the bizarre text for The Prison. The opera was first given in 1902, conducted by the volatile Karl Muck, who loathed the British but liked the work. Performances at Covent Garden, in English, followed a few months later and the following year the Metropolitan put it on, the first opera by a woman to be staged there – and the last until Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin in 2016. Both New York performances were part of double bills, the first with Il trovatore, the second with La fille du régiment, with some of best singers in town.

The plot is full of stock characters. The forest and its spirits, the evil ‘witch’, the unfortunately named Iolanthe, the young woodsman hero, the over-reaching Heinrich, his lover Röschen, the embittered Rudolf, spurned by his mistress Iolanthe and out for revenge on Heinrich. The music is a strange melange of prevailing types and tropes, straight out the forest imagination of German romanticism cross-pollinated by Slavic woods and valleys, served with up a light ladling of Wagneriana and echoes of Weber. 

The Prelude opens with an Arcadian chorus which will, in cyclical fashion, return in compressed form at the work’s end – man dies, the forest immortals are undying (as the opera will reveal) – and moves on to a peasants’ chorus straight out of Dvořák. The character of the Pedlar gives us a patter song and it’s not without interest that he’s sung by Andrew Shore, a G & S specialist, who here sounds believably old but also technically taxed. Smyth unveils a rustic interlude with a stomping dance of the kind you’d find in The Bartered Bride. 

These incidents provide (second-hand) colour and energy to Smyth’s opera but more worrying is the piercingly generic nature of the passion and terror at the heart of the wood. Arias are under-motivated – Iolanthe (Claire Barnett-Jones) does a lot of rapturous singing but very little of it sticks and there is a very strong sense that words and music are operating on parallel lines, and that this would be the case if we were listening to the German-language text too. Smyth’s use of decorative recitative is also worryingly banal. Then there is the question of melodrama with high notes hit and sustained for no other reason that that they explore opportunities for extremes of passion. There’s very little sense of genuine feeling or true passion. Both Heinrich and Röschen end in a Liebestod that strains for weight but, to my ears, fails to generate any sense of true, cumulative human emotion.

Smyth’s orchestration is effective and she uses the archetypal hunting horns proficiently. Some of her writing is undeniably stirring. However, there is too much plodding and padding even in a work that lasts little more than an hour.  

The singers are relatively well-known nationally. Natalya Romaniw has made a name for herself of late. Matthew Brook has relatively little to do as Peter. The burdens fall on Romaniw, Barnett-Jones, Robert Murray and Morgan Pearse as the seething Rudolf and they are saddled with occasionally effective but all too often ungrateful-sounding lines. Smyth asks for too much strenuous singing that in this recording occasionally borders on screeching.  

I’m not unmindful of the attention to detail and the dedication shown by the BBC Singers, the BBC Symphony and the indefatigable John Andrews. Resonus has done well by its forces and the Maida Vale recording is excellent, as is the booklet with a full text. I just wish I could find the music other than second-rate. 

And I’m afraid I’ve come to the conclusion that Smyth was a much better writer than composer.         

It will be entertaining to see what others make of Der Wald but I’ve had my last dance with Dame Ethel: time to move on.

Jonathan Woolf

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