03 Smyth Der WaldEthel Smyth – Der Wald
Soloists; BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra; John Andrews
Resonus RES10324 (resonusclassics.com/products/smyth-der-wald-the-forest)

No paragon of “proper” English womanhood, the openly bisexual, cigar-smoking feminist who composed the suffragette anthem, The March of the Women, spent two months in jail for stoning and shattering an anti-suffrage politician’s office windows. Nevertheless, Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) achieved success at a time when women composers were routinely ignored, becoming in 1922 Britain’s first female composer honoured as a “Dame.”

In 1902, Smyth’s 66-minute, one-act opera Der Wald premiered in Berlin and in 1903 became the first and only opera by a woman produced at the Metropolitan Opera until 2016 (!). The libretto, by Smyth and Henry Brewster, originally in German, is sung here in Smyth’s English translation (included).

The peasant maiden Röschen (soprano Natalya Romaniw) and her fiancé, woodcutter Heinrich (tenor Robert Murray), are beset by the malevolent Iolanthe (mezzo Claire Barnett-Jones), who lusts for Heinrich. Of the five other soloists, baritones Andrew Shore (Pedlar) and Morgan Pearse (Count Rudolf) play important parts in the unfolding of the tragic drama.

Smyth’s admiration for two composers often considered opposites – Brahms and Wagner – is manifested in the lush, warm, Brahmsian choruses of forest spirits and the Wagner-enriched arias of Röschen, Heinrich and Iolanthe. Other highlights are the Röschen-Heinrich love-duet, the ebullient peasant dance and chorus, and the stirring, defiant, dying declamations of Heinrich and Röschen.

Conductor John Andrews, the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Orchestra energetically provide rich colours and powerful climaxes in this premiere recording of Smyth’s landmark opera.

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