Uplifting and hilarious, Spectra Ensemble’s highly accessible revival of The Boatswain’s Mate is a must-see.
2018 marks a hundred years since women in Britain (albeit, only women over thirty) were given the vote. In celebration, Spectra Ensemble have put together a wonderful interpretation of suffragette Ethel Smyth’s The Boatswain’s Mate (1914) which, although not directly an opera about women’s rights, does present an alternative and refreshing dynamic between the male and female characters.
In the story, pub landlady Mrs Waters (Hilary Cronin) is restlessly pursued by a wealthy sailor named Harry Benn (John Upperton). After several rejections to his marriage proposals, Harry conceives a plan whereby his “mate” (Ned Travers, portrayed by Shaun Aquilina) will pretend to burgle Mrs Waters so he can come to the rescue. In the tradition of farcical comedy, the plan goes horribly wrong and Mrs Waters actually ends up taking a fancy to Travers – as well as proving herself to be perfectly capable of apprehending the burglar on her own. For an opera written in 1914, the plot’s a considerable break from the norm in terms of story structure. On top of that, the ending is left very open – with the audience not knowing whether or not Mrs. Waters ever decided to marry Ned Travers.
Smyth’s compositions are beautiful, and performed confidently by both singers and band. Cronin’s Mrs. Waters, in particular, steals the show with a glass-shattering soprano voice – whilst I also extend praise to John Upperton, who has a marvelous tenor voice and looked like he relished playing the sailor.
My only note for The Boatswain’s Mate would be that director Cecilia Stinton could have made some of the movement more dynamic. In places, the staging was perfect – but there were a few instances of dead time on the stage (particularly in the number “Good Night, Mrs Waters”) which could have been solved with some simple farcical tropes. But Cecilia has done a fantastic job with the piece overall and has adapted it in such a way that it feels fresh and highly accessible. I am thoroughly pleased that this was the first opera I ever saw.