Cracks of thunder, road rage, intermittent sirens and a barking dog: the brave members of HGO faced stiff competition during last night’s performance of Sāvitri. And that was before it started to rain. Lucky, then, that the prospect of a living, breathing opera – experienced without the pallid glow of a computer screen – was too enticing for such trifles to matter.

Joanna Harries (Sāvitri) © 2020LaurentCompagnon
Joanna Harries (Sāvitri)
© 2020LaurentCompagnon

Holst’s 1909 chamber opera sets an episode from the great classic of Sanskrit literature, the Mahabharata. Despite its epic scope — the triumph of love over death — the setting is simple and homely, representing a shift away from the extravagant, Wagnerian models that had so obsessed Holst during his student days. A performance lasts roughly 30 minutes and requires just three singers, a female chorus and a 12-piece orchestra. Practically speaking, this makes Sāvitri the perfect opera for a socially distant age. Indeed, Holst actually wrote it to be performed outdoors. (Odd, then, that the voice of Death, sung by Dan D’Souza, was banished back-stage, almost inaudible behind closed doors, right up until his final exchange with Joanna Harries’s Sāvitri.)

Joanna Harries (Sāvitri) © 2020LaurentCompagnon
Joanna Harries (Sāvitri)
© 2020LaurentCompagnon

Holst’s libretto lends another, philosophical pertinence to the production. Condemned by Death, Sāvitri’s husband Sātyavan tries to defend himself with an axe; māyā – or illusion – has blinded him to the futility of his actions. He no longer perceives the unity of all things and, therefore, cannot accept inexorable Death. As director Julia Mintzer points out, this response resonates with our human need to pinpoint blame. In the midst of a global pandemic, Sātyavan’s suffering brings our own insecurities into sharp relief.

Aside from its economy, the score is unusual in a number of ways. We bounce between modal, folkish melodies – pronounced in earthy solo passages for viola and cor anglais – and rich Straussian harmony. Remarkably, the opening five minutes are entirely a cappella, with Sāvitri joining the (muffled) voice of Death in fiendish counterpoint. Meanwhile the wordless female chorus, also off-stage, adds a ghostly quality to the thin instrumentation, so that when Sātyavan sings of māyā their voices seem to embody the divine world interacting with the mortal.

<i>Sāvitri</i> © 2020LaurentCompagnon
Sāvitri
© 2020LaurentCompagnon

Throughout the performance, Harries’s robust mezzo-soprano adroitly navigated the shifting moods and keys of the piece, letting rip in her final exchange with Death. “Give me life, life is all I ask of thee,” she implores, redolent of Salome in her final moments – albeit with a nobler design. Jack Roberts, who played Sātyavan, was equally convincing, his cherry-blossom tenor cutting neatly through the sultry August air – definitely one to watch.

I remain unconvinced by some of the directorial decisions. A mute, ever-present dancer felt like a last-minute add-on, offering little more than a distraction from the singers. Nor did I get to the bottom of why Sāvitri (and said dancer) were scrawling on a giant mirror with a red marker. More faith in both the libretto and the singers’ ability to carry the show’s momentum might have brought this production closer to the understated gem that Holst envisioned. Moreover, had the orchestra and chorus, like Death, not been sequestered away to the back and side of the stage, I might not have had to strain so hard to comprehend the beauty of his score.

Jack Roberts (Satyavān) and Joanna Harries (Sāvitri) © 2020LaurentCompagnon
Jack Roberts (Satyavān) and Joanna Harries (Sāvitri)
© 2020LaurentCompagnon

A battle with the North London soundscape was inevitable and inescapable – a microcosm of the entire performing arts industry as it contends with debilitating social distancing regulations. Nevertheless, this performance marks a significant and welcome step in the long road to recovery, and for that we must be thankful. There was also another, mildly ironic victory: for all the honks, sirens, barks and rumbles, I heard not a single cough.

***11