A live performance of an opera by Gustav Holst is a rarity. The chance to experience two together might arrive once in a lifetime, and it was provided in the Victorian stateliness of Morley Town Hall by the young and rapidly burgeoning Northern Opera Group as the main part of its Leeds Opera Festival. They were the chamber opera Sāvitri, first performed in 1916, and the greatly contrasting At the Boar’s Head, from 1925. Both reflect the interests of their time. The first is based on the story of Sāvitri and Satyavan and the battle between love and death, translated from the Sanskrit of the Ancient Indian classic The Mahābhārata, while the second, taken from Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, is permeated with folk tunes.

Julian Close (Death) and Meeta Raval (Sāvitri)
© Ant Robling Photography

Limited resources could explain the simple sets. For Sāvitri, hangings shimmer like satin, and tables which could have been borrowed from a local pub create the Boar’s Head. It is enough. Lyric soprano Meeta Raval sang the eponymous heroine. Her career took flight after she became a finalist in the BBC’s 2011 Cardiff Singer of the World, and she now dominates the stage with her charisma, reaching the purest of top notes and showing firm emotional engagement with her part, overcoming the difficulty of dealing with her archetypal character and music which requires Wagnerian stamina. At times, she was almost blasted away by the immensely rich bass voice of Julian Close as Death, but succeeded in placating him in accordance with the Hindu concept of Maya, the force which creates the illusion that the phenomenal world is real. She then offers him a cup of tea, and all is well. Her husband, who has died while attempting to wield an axe, comes back to life for a happy ending. We heard too little of Polish tenor Kamil Bien’s beautiful voice in the smaller role of Satyavan, while the all-female chorus at the back of the hall brought on memories of old Hollywood films.

Andrew Slater (Falstaff), Rosie Clifford (Doll Tearsheet) and James Corrigan (Pistol)
© Ant Robling Photography

Surtitle screens were prominently placed. Holst’s libretto for Sāvitri is influenced by his perception of 16th-century English, and Shakespeare’s words, sometimes dated or obscure, need to be helped along in this context. I related more to At the Boar’s Head, which is less static, with more opportunities for stage business involving well-known characters like Falstaff, played by seasoned bass-baritone Andrew Slater with considerable panache, his voice conveying warmth and wit. The strongest stage presence was lyric tenor Joseph Doody as Prince Hal, always in great command physically, blending well with others, like Poins (an impressive Thomas Hopkinson). His voice has power and sweetness, and his diction is spot-on. Callie Gaston was a terrific Hostess, and Rosemary Clifford delivered an excellent performance as a drunken Doll Tearsheet, stumbling into the tavern before sitting on Falstaff’s knee. James Corrigan was a very credible pub thug as Pistol, efficiently repulsed by Doll.

Andrew Slater (Falstaff)
© Ant Robling Photography

As in the original play, a highlight was when Falstaff gets into role as the king, to rebuke Prince Hal and defend Falstaff, and then switch roles, with Hal playing his father, but the most impressive scene was towards the end, when the whole stage was in well-choreographed uproar, with cushions, bar stools and bodies all hurtling about, thanks to the careful work of Emma Black, who directed both operas. Conductor Lewis Gaston kept tight control over the Skipton Camerata, one of the finest little orchestras in Yorkshire.

We are sure to be hearing more about Northern Opera Group, led by energetic and imaginative people like its artistic director, David Ward, which has been in existence for just a few years and has a friendly relationship with the better endowed and firmly established Opera North. The group’s activities are many and various. It has a growing online presence too, with plenty that can be watched on a screen too. 


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