Opera Scotland

Wreckers The Wreckers


Ethel Smyth (born London, 22 April 1858l died Woking, 9 May 1944)


Henry Brewster (in German translation by H Decker and John Bernhoff).


Drama (in French) Les Naufrageurs by Henry Brewster.



First Performance: Leipzig (Neues Theater), 11 November 1906.

First Performance in UK (concert): London (Queen's Hall), 30 May 1908.

First Perfrmance in UK (staged): London (His Majesty's Theatre), 22 June 1909.

First Performance in Scotland: Glasgow (King's Theatre), 11 April 1972.



The Wreckers was Dame Ethel Smyth's most successful opera, but even so she had to have it performed first in Leipzig, where she had studied, and had an excellent reputation as a young composer - it was her third opera to be launched there. Having a text translated into German, it was at first known as Strandrecht. Brewster's source play was originally in French, and the definitive English text was only written in 1909 by the composer and Alma Strettell.

The Queen's Hall concert performance was conducted by Nikisch, and the stage production by Beecham, so when the work was at last performed in Britain it was given a fair chance, and was quite highly regarded. It has not had a professional staging in Britain since Sadler's Wells mounted it in 1939. However it did show up quite well in a concert performance during the 1994 season of BBC Proms. The recording of this performance was, fortunately, issued on CD, but does not yet seem to have encouraged further revivals.


Main Characters

Pascoe, a preacher and village headman (bass-baritone)

Lawrence, a lighthouse keeper (baritone)

Harvey, Lawrence's brither-in-law (bass)

Tallan, landlord of the tavern (tenor)

Jack, Tallan's son (mezzo-soprano)

Mark, a young fisherman (tenor)

Thirza, wife of Pascoe (mezzo-soprano)

Avis, daughter of Lawrence (soprano)


Plot Summary

In the eighteenth century, times can be hard for people in rural communities in Cornwall, and the risk of starvation is never far away. Some communities have developed a technique of disabing lamps on the shore to trick passing ships into believing the area is a safe passage. The unwary sailors are lured on to rocks, to the benefit of the community.

In an example of extreme hypocrisy, the leader of the wreckers is Pascoe, also a Wesleyan preacher. His wife, Thirza, much younger than him, and carrying on an affair with Mark, a young fisherman, is horrified by this misconduct, and secretly helps Mark to light a beacon as a warning to ships in stormy weather. This is necessary because Lawrence, the lighthouse keeper is in the habit of extinguishing his light. The warning beacons have had the desired effect, and it is now some time since a ship was wrecked. The natives are starving and angry. Avis reports that her father has seen a beacon on occasions, clearly lit by a traitor in their midst. As the villagers go to church, Thirza stays away, revolted by the knowledge that her neighbours are praying for a shipwreck, and is contemptuous of her husband's claim that they are only upholding tradition. After Pascoe has entered the church, Avis, in love with Mark, sees him throw flowers in at Thirza's window. This makes her jealous.

Avis and Jack carry on a flirtation while watching on the beach for signs of the traitor. They go off, and Mark arrives to assemble a warning beacon from driftwood. Thirza now warns him that the beach is being watched. After their duet in which they agree to elope immediately, Thirza herself ignites the fire, and her husband is attracted by the light. Mark is able to escape as Thirza tells her husband she is the traitor and that she loves another. Pascoe faints and the other villagers arrive, believing him to be the traitor.

In a cave as dawn breaks, the crowd has assembled for Pascoe's trial. The punishment, if guilty, is to be locked in the cave at the mercy of the rising tide. Pascoe maintains silence, but Avis claims that Thirza is to blame and must have bewitched her husband. Mark arrives, and admits his own guilt. Avis, desperate to save him, claims she was with him all night, but the trial proceeds, and with the guilt of Mark and Thirza established, they are condemned. The villagers leave the couple on their own in the cave, where the rising tide will drown them.

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