Fête Galante - The Recording
CD We are delighted to announce that Odaline de la Martinez, who did a truly outstanding job conducting our recording of Smyth’s Boatswain’s Mate, has again agreed to conduct for us. A renowned interpreter and champion of Smyth’s music, she has previously released a critically acclaimed recording of Smyth’s opera The Wreckers, which she conducted in a special performance at the BBC Proms in 1994, as well as a CD of Smyth’s Serenade in D major and Concerto for Violin, Horn, and Orchestra.

Professor Stephen Banfield has written extensively about British music (most notably on the works of Gerald Finzi), and his book Sensibility and English Song is essential reading for anyone interested in the period. He has written this powerful statement:

Retrospect Opera are becoming a real force, and I am delighted that Ethel Smyth’s Fête Galante is now firmly within their sights. It is one of the best and most original contributions, all of them neglected, to a broadly neoclassical turn that English opera took in the second and third decades of the 20th century. It is also in some respects Smyth’s best opera. Musically simpler than the others, it is eminently stageworthy and earworthy, its score the genuine stuff of one-act drama, its atmosphere and conception unique. It will greatly enhance our view of English music.

And Didi Hopkins, actor, theatre director, commedia dell’arte specialist, and director of leadership programmes for women, has written this generous endorsement:

Ethel Smyth was an extraordinary woman (there were/are all too few female composers), who chose to use characters and a scenario from the commedia dell’arte as a source for her delightful Fête Galante. Commedia is an oral tradition which has inspired artists in music, theatre and the visual arts over the centuries as a source for their work. The curious thing is how each of these artists has been awakened by something they have found within the tradition, and each has taken an element of the commedia and made it their own.

It is an amazing project to bring Fête Galante to life again, and record it for audiences today. It is important not only for musicians and lovers of opera, but also for those curious about how commedia dell’arte has influenced art. The result, conducted by Odaline de la Martinez, is sure to be a treasure. Please support it if you can.

Ethel Smyth
Ethel SmythEthel Smyth (1858-1944) occupies an absolutely central place in the history of British women’s music. In terms of professionalism, ambition and achievement she was in a completely different league from the female composers who preceded her, and she has gone on proving an inspiration and influence to those who came after her. In recent decades, her significance and abilities have been demonstrated by a series of recordings and rapidly increasing academic interest. There is no doubt that, with the general boom in women’s music, and the particular interest generated in Smyth given the productions of her operas The Wreckers, The Boatswain’s Mate, and Fête Galante internationally across the past decade, we will be hearing a lot more of Smyth in the future.

Although a good deal of Smyth’s music is now available on record, the genre with which she was most preoccupied and identified, opera, is very poorly represented. Of her six operas, prior to Retrospect Opera’s release of The Boatswain’s Mate in 2016, only The Wreckers had been recorded in its entirety, over twenty years ago. In light of the renewed interest in Smyth’s operatic output, it is high time for more of Smyth’s work in the genre to be available. The most obvious candidate is Fête Galante (1923), the opera that immediately succeeded The Wreckers and The Boatswain’s Mate, and it built upon the ‘new departure’ in her output heralded by the latter – a change of direction that was to have significant ramifications for the history of early twentieth-century British opera. 

© 2016 David Chandler and Christopher Wiley

Fête Galante

Smyth SargentSmyth advanced immeasurably on all previous female composers of opera, but what is perhaps most striking about her work in the field is her desire to develop the genre in several different directions, rather than just one. She never repeated herself, and to those who only know her earlier operas, Fête Galante is guaranteed to be a remarkable revelation. Where The Wreckers is the most powerful and socially engaged of her operas, and The Boatswain’s Mate the most tuneful and funny, Fête Galante is the most magical and original. It is the only score in which she drew upon neo-classical idioms, including stylised Baroque dances and an unaccompanied madrigal setting of ‘Soul’s Joy’, a poem then thought to be by John Donne, but now attributed to William Herbert (1580-1630), the dedicatee of the Shakespeare First Folio.

First performed at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and London's Covent Garden in 1923, Fête Galante explores the blurred lines between fantasy and reality, illusion and delusion. Set in ‘a moon-lit Watteau-esque garden’ and subtitled ‘a dance-dream’, the one-act opera is based on a short story by Maurice Baring, a close friend of Smyth’s about whom she subsequently published a book-length biography (1938). The neo-classical idiom of her music is well characterised by the Queen in the story: ‘Lilting and soft, but with an undercurrent / Of Sorrow and bitterness.’

Of Smyth’s six operas, Fête Galante was the only one to have been written to commission, by the British National Opera, in December 1921. It was also the opera that enjoyed the furthest reach during Smyth’s lifetime, having been both arranged as an orchestral suite (1924) and expanded as a ballet (1932). In these forms, Smyth’s music was presented in several high-profile concert performances under the composer’s baton, including the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Queen’s Hall Prom in 1933, at the invitation of Sir Henry Wood.

‘The public loved F.G.’, Smyth wrote in her diary in July 1923. She was not wrong. Among the substantial number of congratulatory letters she received, acclaimed singer Astra Desmond wrote, ‘I must tell you how tremendously I enjoyed your exquisite Fête Galante. It is one of the most beautiful and moving things I have seen or heard.’ The work was also said to have prompted Sir Richard Terry, the musicologist and pioneering early music specialist, to remark that Smyth was ‘the only English composer of opera who could really get it over the footlights’.

I n view of the strength of these contemporary endorsements, it is clearly only proper that the opera that brought such enjoyment to listeners in the 1920s and 1930s should once again become available to the public in the form of a modern recording.

© 2016 David Chandler and Christopher Wiley

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