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FringeReview UK 2018

The Boatswain’s Mate

Spectra, Arcola Theatre, London, Grimeborn Festival 2018

Genre: Live Music, Music, Opera and Operatic Theatre

Venue: Arcola Theatre, Studio 2 24 Ashwin Street


Low Down

Spectra mount a reduced opera for Grimeborn at the Arcola, where music director John Warner reduces the orchestra to a piano trio, leaving the singing forces unchanged. Director Cecilia Stinton has set this 1914 work in Coronation Year, 1953, in Margate. Christianna Mason’s set is a simple reversible yellow frame with period costume. Ali Hunter’s lighting allows a pink/blue rinse on the Studio’s bare wall. Tour TBA.


Ethel Smyth’s so famous as a personality, and for her superb March of the Women of 1910 just the tip of her suffragette activities, that it’s a sly way for some to forget the rest of her music. Her overture The Wreckers from her 1903 opera has always been admired for its memorable swash and salt – one of the very finest of the period, up there with MacCunn’s teenage Land of the Mountain and the Flood from 1886, and Elgar’s 1901 Cockaigne. Born a year later than Elgar – in 1858 – she lived vigorously till 1944.

But as the indefatigable Odalina de la Martinez proved triumphantly in her 1994 traversal of the whole Wreckers at the Proms (and that recording issued on the defunct Conifer label) She’s also just recorded this opera. Smyth’s the best opera composer we had between Purcell and Britten. And her 1893 Mass in D is the best British one between Byrd’s and Vaughan Williams, and the best with orchestra before Howells’ hybrid Hymnus Paradisi. But that’s where the distracting fun starts. The Bishop od Durham was dazed by Smyth’s Kyrie. ‘God is not so much implored as commanded to have mercy.’ Lesser men followed.


The Boatswain’s Mate from 1914 will excite anyone with ears for the unusual. Though she composed instrumental music Smyth notably stormed the male precincts of opera. Only the French-Irish Augusta Holmes preceded her though baroque women like Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre wrote opera too.


That’s where reducing the orchestra to a piano trio by Oxford-based Spectra music director John Warner comes in. It’s tangy, sharp, almost pub theatre, in the small Studio 2 of the Arcola. Well it’s set in an inn. There’s Warner’s upright with cramped violin and cello (Claudia Fuller and Hee Yeon Cho).


Every twist and shout of this ebullient score is anatomized and shown as fresh, full of harmonic slippage somewhere north of Paris and with a nod to the modal harmonies of folksong, which Smyth quotes plangently here. If it sounds occasionally Vaughan Williams-ish that’s simply because of their shared use of modal folksong idioms. But beyond this there’s strides from The Wreckers of a decade earlier, Smyth’s voice intensifying.


Though Smyth wrote for instruments in her youth her final work was a Violin and Horn Concerto of 1929, written when almost deaf (causing her to write books instead). It shows Smyth’s original palate, humour, her capacity for enharmonic twist and spiky originality. So yes good to hear the fully-orchestrated opera but this six-cast three-musician ensemble does the work full justice. With more than a pinch of sea-salt.


A lot of that’s here in The Boatswain’s Mate overture lasting over six minutes. It’s audibly lighter-textured, still swaggering, more various, less massive – yet symphonic, no light-opera curtain-raiser. And… that tune… ‘March of the Women’ with wonderful variations as it rides through the texture and back again. Just to let you know what’s coming. There’s folksong too, and later the conversation in music Bernard Shaw praised.


Alert to new music Smyth’s written a wry, spry and delicate comic opera traversing ninety-five minutes of apparently harmless subversion; but then a gun goes off and nothing’s as innocent as it seems. Fresh from conducting fellow-suffragettes circling a courtyard with her toothbrush from her prison cell, Smyth delicately stamps on a few toes.


Director Cecilia Stinton has set this work in Coronation Year, 1953, in Margate. She reckons that roughly halfway between 1914 and now, women were still negotiating independence and the final scene shows how perilous that is. Christianna Mason’s set is a simple reversible yellow frame and window showing outside and inside the heroine’s bedroom. There’s a few tables and chairs for the outside bear garden and a tiny dresser with scattered things doing service for the bedroom. Oh and a gun. And you know about stages and guns. Ali Hunter’s lighting allows a pink/blue rinse on the Studio’s bare wall, and is otherwise naturalistic in light and shade.


Mason’s male clothing could be any period from the first half of the 20th century; Mary-Ann the barmaid (Lily Evangeline Scott) is given a full navy dress, and heroine Mr Waters (soprano Hilary Cronin) a white flurry of layers. It gets rid of the Edwardian dress, even the bicycle-friendly Rational Dress, but bar this you’d not know it was set in 1953. Period references are otherwise absent, apart from the price of beer – and of something else paid out to the tune of 20 quid.


Part 1 is airy, conversational, folksong-inflected, in direct contrast to Part II which here follows straight on. So barmaid Mary-Ann has no designated singing part at all, nor her lover, though both swell a drunken chorus.


We’re at the solitary Beehive inn. Youthful widow Mrs Waters pushes out her barmaid’s beau (Michael TK Lam) and grabs Mary-Ann’s flouncy services and we’re straight into the plot proper where tenor John Upperton’s lonely retired boatswain Harry Benn again proposes to Mrs Waters. He’s no longer young but thinks Mrs Waters at thirty-something should jump at him. Upperton’s sharply-profiled tenor encompasses a range of plangent melancholy and chancy cunning.


Firmly rejecting his offer but not offer of help, she leaves him in charge when discharged soldier Ned Travers (baritone Shaun Aquilina) happens on the pub and Benn hatches a plan. Pretend to be a burglar, then I’ll rescue Mrs Waters. Aquilina’s character s no pushover, and Travers is naturally honest. but out-of-work army men in 2018 comprise about 17,000 in prison or homeless. Think how 1914 treated its ex-servicemen. Aquilina’s a romantic lyric baritone on this evidence, and rarely given to explosive outbursts – but like Upperton’s enjoys clarity and punch. Aquilina’s Travers then becomes The Boatswain’s Mate of the title.


Before all this transpires we’re given a taste of Cronin’s conflicted feelings and it’s the heart of the opera. ‘Contrariness … What if I were young again’ which critiques the Shakespeare song with spring ‘the only pretty ring time’ – what about summertime Mrs Waters asks later, long before Gershwin (Smyth would have quoted it had it been written)?


We’ve had ‘The Keeper’ folksong but the re-worded ‘Lord Rendal’ with the dying lovesick son to his mother is quietly heartrending here. Personal and sexual solitude arise from Cronin: this isn’t light opera but serious comic with shadows. They never entirely lift. Cronin inhabits Mrs Waters’ melancholy, yet she’s brimful of fun sashaying comedic timing to get all the laughs.


After a drunken chorus with three ensemble characters – superbly out of tune and chromatically squiffy, there’s quite a sizeable instrumental interlude ‘Bushes and Briars’ before we get to the attempted burglary, Cronin confronting Aquilina with a gun when she finds him, and when all’s revealed recruiting him to revenge herself.


Outside the waiting Upperton (and Lam) imitates cats. But there’s more. ‘Oh! dear, if I had known’ (that Travers is much younger than Benn and handsome) has Mrs Waters regretting she hasn’t got more clothes on. It’s a great comic duet, incredibly sparky (Travers would have darned his socks!) and of course bonding. Benn’s confronted, and ordered to help. ‘The first thing to do is get rid of the body’ sings Cronin about the apparently expired Travers. Benn meanly grabs a policeman Christopher Foster’s bass-baritone cameo nicely harmonizes.


Plotwise it’s Mrs Waters all the way, revealing of course Travers send sending the men off. but.. perhaps Travers might… here’s the feminist point. He’d like to be a landlord. Again we’re confronted with a conflicted heroine who’s done everything from outwit the men to concealing a gun till she can thrust it behind the curtains to her accomplice’s hands. The opera doesn’t end in an embrace, but a coy probation. ‘When the sun is setting’ is a fitting duet to end with a slight question mark. It’s also one on ageism and cultural assumptions.


Throughout this first half Cronin rises gradually to command the stage. The finest moments are her reflective arias and duets and her headlong inventiveness in the through-composed second half. If we seem to move from one genre to another it suits the deepening seriousness of the work, and isn’t the first to move from light comedy to romance. Cronin’s memorably moving here and Aquilina and Upperton give notable support. About time this became standard repertoire.