OPERA / Curiosity plumbs the depths: Edward Seckerson on the Prom revival of Dame Ethel Smyth's Cornish opera, The Wreckers

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Most of Sunday night's Prom audience will have waded through the advance publicity still wondering what lay beyond the overture. That's the bit we know - the only bit of Ethel Smyth's opera The Wreckers we ever hear. The last time this listener got beyond it, he did so from the inside - from the orchestra. That was in 1968, the last London staging of the piece. And as that salty shanty took hold, somewhat crudely leading the ear on from homespun tune to homespun seascape and flailing melodrama, the promise was for more of the same. A traditional folk or ballad opera. Good hearty fare. If only.

In situ, the overture actually stops well short of the familiar concert version, plunging us unprepared into a church congregation in full Wesleyan cry. The Die Meistersinger effect. Dame Ethel had digested her Wagner all right. From first to last, the style is relentlessly declamatory. The orchestra gets most of the tunes, facilitated through texturing of undeniable quality and atmosphere. There's a useful orchestrator at work here. But Wagner rules: those meaningful brass chordings, the searching bass clarinet, the swell of his Rhine and even the shimmer of his 'magic fire' are duly felt in such passages as the prelude to Act 2, 'On the Cliffs of Cornwall'. Richard Strauss looks on, his presence felt in the more complex counterpointing.

So is there anything about The Wreckers that is for ever England? Well, the chorus. The English oratorio tradition marches on. These Cornish villagers blaze a trail all the way to Elgar's Kingdom. At least, they do when the Huddersfield Choral Society comes South in force. There are other anomalies. The jealous teenage seductress Avis - marvellously taken here by Judith Howarth - has stepped into the wrong opera. Both her arias sound like social visits to Meyerbeer. And you wonder why. If it's sexy, it must be French? Or simply Smyth with her eye on the French market? Probably both.

Mind you, with a libretto like Henry Brewster's, you don't need a composer, you need a miracle-worker. The idea is a good one - the twisted morality of religious fundamentalism. But the words . . . 'Were the moon but younger / O, what a night for wreckers]' Smyth has her work cut out. Avis apart, the vocal writing is disappointingly monochrome: long stretches of greyish recitative, now passive, now hectoring - anything but genuinely, intriguingly, inspiringly expressive.

Of course, this being Cornwall, the lovers Mark and Thirza have noble antecedents. You hear as much in the ecstatic unison (at last, a big, grateful tune in the voices) at the climax of their impassioned Act 2 duet. Justin Lavender sounded somewhat over- parted as Mark, a lyric role verging on the heroic, but the ample-voiced Anne- Marie Owens made the most of Thirza. A lot rides on her seraphic top notes. Her entrance music suggests the unveiling of the Holy Grail.

So now we know what lies beyond the Wreckers overture. And a rush- released commercial recording of the event from Conifer (due 5 September) means that no one need ever be curious again. But is it just our curiosity that's been satisfied? Odaline de la Martinez clearly thinks not; and the BBC Philharmonic served her robustly in that belief. Me? Twice in 25 years is more than enough. I'm thinking of far better pieces still languishing in obscurity.

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