Retrospect Opera’s new recording of Ethel Smyth’s FÍte Galante

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, FÍte 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, FÍte 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 FÍte 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 FÍte 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 FÍte 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’.


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; Miloö 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 FÍte Galante, The Boatswain’s Mate and Entente Cordiale.

FÍte 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 FÍte 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


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

image_description=Retrospect Opera RO007
product_title=Ethel Smyth: FÍte Galante & Liza Lehmann: The Happy Prince
product_by=Lontano Ensemble, Odaline de la Martinez (conductor); Felicity Lott (reciter), Valerie Langfield (piano)
product_id=Retrospect Opera RO007 [CD]