An uplifting, small-scale production of The Boatswain’s Mate at Buxton was a real treat

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Buxton International Festival 2024 [1] – Ethel Smyth, The Boatswain’s Mate: Soloists, Chorus and Instrumental Trio / Rebecca Warren (direction). Buxton International Festival, Pavilion Arts Centre, Derbyshire, 8.7.2024. (MC)

[l-r] Rebecca Warren (piano), Elizabeth Findon (Mrs Waters) and Theo Perry (Ned Travers) © Genevieve Girling

I have been hoping to see a production of an Ethel Smyth opera for some years. Smyth’s opera The Wreckers (1906) is sometimes staged, whilst performances of the remaining five are rare. When I have seen a Smyth opera programmed within my reach, I have been elsewhere.

English composer Dame Ethel Smyth was a controversial figure with a strong personality. A passionate suffragette, Smyth, convicted of stoning windows of prominent people, served two months in Holloway prison. Smyth based the libretto of her fourth opera The Boatswain’s Mate on the eponymous story by William Wymark Jacobs (1863-1943).

A comedy, cast in a single act and two distinct parts, The Boatswain’s Mate was premiered in 1916 at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London. In 1923 the opera was given at Covent Garden but revivals have been few. In the score Smyth used folk tunes and the theme of her celebrated song The March of the Women.

Forming part of the Buxton International Festival this production of The Boatswain’s Mate was a chamber version that used three principal vocal soloists in the roles of Mrs Waters, Harry Benn and Ned Travers with Mary-Ann and the policemen in supporting roles. Stage director Nick Bond and set and costume designer Elliott Squire brought the scenario forward from around the First World War era to more recent years, the most obvious aspect being the modern-day clothes. Squire’s set was certainly a modest one and it did work efficiently making true the old adage that simple often works best. Artificial grass was the flooring of the set together with two round tables and chairs, and two picnic tables.

[l-r] cellist Harvey Kelly, Hamish Garrity, James Connolly, Elizabeth Findon, Yihui Wang and Brennan Alleyne © Genevieve Girling

On the stage positioned in front of the black backdrop curtain and just behind the set the audience could see the instrumental trio. Rebecca Warren directing from the piano with Matthew Chin (violin) and Harvey Kelly (cello) were a tight group and made a convincing sound all evening. In addition, the chorus that comprised four males made valuable contributions. There were cuts made to the score, in particular the overture was reduced in length.

The cast of The Boatswain’s Mate was so well-chosen carrying off the comedy touches adeptly and created much amusement. Only four strong the male chorus made a splendid sound and they exhibited a selection of contemporary clothes that included a baseball cap, loafer shoes with no socks, Hunter wellies and one had a top-knot hairstyle.

Making an impact was Elizabeth Findon in the principal role of Mrs Waters a widowed landlady who has inherited The Beehive a country public house. Findon sings the role as a resolute and independent woman who brushes off the approaches by Harry Benn and has a fondness for Ned Travers. She can handle a revolver too. With her remarkable soprano voice Findon was able to sing quietly, affording rapt tenderness and by contrast she provided an awesome power to her highest notes. With such wholehearted commitment the downside was a touch harshness at times.

Joshua Baxter sang the role of Harry Benn, a boatswain now retired and a practiced beer drinker. As Mrs Waters suitor, Benn fancied being the pub landlord, but his persistent advances were spurned by the landlady. Devising a madcap scheme to stage a fake robbery at The Beehive Benn hoped to persuade Mrs Waters that she needed a man, like him, as pub landlord who would protect her. Although a touch bland in character Baxter revealed his attractive tenor and worked hard at portraying Benn as suitably deluded to think that Mrs Waters would take him as a husband.

Dressed as a hiker, Ned Travers was a young and easy-going ex-soldier who found himself in straitened circumstances. Unemployed and needing the money, Travers agreed to participate in the fake robbery that was doomed to failure.

A most agreeable and hearty baritone Perry was convincing in the role of Travers and sang splendidly.

Mezzo-soprano Rebecca Anderson took the minor role of Mary Ann wearing denim clothes and boots. As the popular barmaid Anderson looked as if she was capable of much more. An even smaller part was the Policemen who seemed inept as if he doesn’t have much crime to deal with on his patch. In the role bass-baritone Richard Woodall certainly looked and acted the part of a bungling old copper.

The uplifting, small-scale production of The Boatswain’s Mate at the Pavilion Arts Centre was a real treat for me and the audience, a full house, cheered for all it was worth.

Michael Cookson

Musical direction, from the piano – Rebecca Warren
Stage direction – Nick Bond
Set and Costume design – Elliott Squire
Lighting design – Rachel E Cleary

Elizabeth Findon – Mrs Waters
Joshua Baxter – Harry Benn
Theo Perry – Ned Travers​
Richard Woodall– Policeman
Rebecca Anderson – Mary Ann

Male Chorus: Brennan Alleyne (tenor), Yihui Wang (tenor), James Connolly (baritone), Hamish Garrity (baritone)

Instrumental Trio: Rebecca Warren (piano), Matthew Chin (violin), Harvey Kelly (cello)

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