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Following its first recording last year on Resonus Classics, Ethyl Smyth’s one-act opera Der Wald has also returned to the stage in recent months, in an intriguing double bill at the Wuppertal Opera House coupled with Schoenberg’s Erwartung.

Der Wald (The Forest) was Ethyl Smyth’s second opera, premiered in Berlin in 1902 and performed at Covent Garden in London. The following year brought a successful staging at the Metropolitan Opera, marking a significant first for women composers that was not to be repeated at the New York house until 2016 with Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin. Smyth's one-act opera returned to the German stage in April after more than a century, directed by Manuel Schmitt and conducted by Patrick Hahn.

The production at the Wuppertal Opera House ingeniously combined the Smyth opera with Schoenberg’s Erwartung. The woman in the expressionist monodrama, written just seven years after Der Wald, is waiting expectantly in a dark forest for her lover but is beset by neurotic fears and recriminations, leading up to her discovery of his corpse. This triggers her memories of earlier events described in Smyth’s opera, staged with a seamless transition and common visual themes unifying the two halves of the drama. The flashback tells of the noblewoman Iolanthe trying to lure the woodcutter Heinrich away from his beloved. When he refuses her, Iolanthe allows him to be killed out of revenge and the wood spirits resume their commentary on human futility.

“The song of the forest spirits, which emphasises the eternity of nature over the transience of the individual, casts a great spell on Smyth… You can hear how sincerely she admired Brahms as an artist: the beatitudes from his German Requiem and his Schicksalslied after Hölderlin resonate sympathetically here.”
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

“It is the typical music of German romantic opera, but Ethel Smyth has created her very own, rich, powerful and dramatic sound world… Cheerful, almost folkloristic scenes alternate with menacing, sometimes spooky ones… The music contains lyrical elements, touching love duets and dramatic tutti sounds. Smyth wrote wonderful, but technically very challenging music… The chorus has the final word in this exciting drama.”
Westdeutsche Zeitung

“In Ethel Smyth's Der Wald, the chorus not only paints the mood in the prologue and epilogue, but also repeatedly drives the plot forward… The Wuppertal Opera House has succeeded in making a worthwhile excavation - Ethel Smyth is a real discovery… She is worth remembering as an equal among composers - and she would certainly have liked this judgement.”
Der Opernfreund

The recent recording of Der Wald on Resonus Classics (RES10324) sees John Andrews conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers, with lead roles sung in Smyth's own English translation of the original German libretto by a strong cast including Natalya Romaniw, Robert Murray, Claire Barnett-Jones and Andrew Shore.

“This, Der Wald’s first recording, argues its case persuasively. The conductor, John Andrews, manages to make the hour-long score sound at once concise and expansive, and we sense the hint of mystery that Smyth wanted to engender with her depiction of the primeval forest setting. The music draws unashamedly on Wagner and Brahms, but not in a way that feels derivative; highlights include a lovely, harmonically adventurous chorus of spirits to open and close the work, and a scene for the central couple blossoming into a love duet that culminates in a heartfelt ode to the forest itself.”
The Guardian

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The revival of interest in Smyth’s Der Wald follows successful recent productions of The Wreckers at Glyndebourne and Houston Grand Opera in 2022. The positive response to her operas is a belated justification for the battle she underwent on behalf of her music and the possibility of being a successful female composer. As she wrote: I feel I must fight for Der Wald because I want women to turn their minds to big and difficult jobs; not just to go on hugging the shore, afraid to put out to sea.”

You can explore other music by women composers published by Boosey & Hawkes on our website, including operas and music theatre works by Unsuk Chin, Elena Kats-Chernin, Olga Neuwirth, Grace-Evangeline Mason, Meredith Monk, Ana Sokolovic and Iris ter Schiphorst.

>  Further information on Work: Der Wald

Photo: Ethel Smyth's Der Wald at the Wuppertal Opera House (credit © Björn Hickmann)

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