Love, death and illusion links Sāvitri and Blond Eckbert, two operas ostensibly about marriage – one based on solid foundations, the other on shifting sands. The two works stand at opposite ends of the twentieth century, each with a libretto created by the composers. Both operas haunt the imagination, not least in Gustav Holst’s 30-minute Sāvitri. Completed in 1909 and based on an episode from the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, the work tells how death is outwitted by the love of the title character’s devotion to her husband. Judith Weir’s Blond Eckbert (1993) draws on Ludwig Tieck’s darkly Germanic fairy tale to fashion an hour-long psycho drama concerning the disturbing past of Eckbert and his wife Berthe.

Lorna Maclean (Sāvitri) and Steven van der Linden (Satyavān)
© Guildhall School | David Monteith-Hodge

Sāvitri, Holst’s second Indian opera, is written for three solo singers, wordless female chorus and chamber ensemble, and may be regarded as the finest product of Holst’s preoccupation with Indian culture. After its first professional performance in 1921 at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, with Sir Arthur Bliss conducting, The Times suggested “Savitri is to most modern opera what the clavichord is to a grand piano”. But the critic did acknowledge the work was “a perfect little masterpiece of its kind”. Its strength lies in its economy of musical gesture, paralleled at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama on Monday night by Ashley Dean’s minimal staging – black drapes falling on a bare stage and offset by a candlelit vision of the afterlife.

Jonah Halton (Hugo, Walther) and Louisa Stirland (A bird)
© Guildhall School | David Monteith-Hodge

The work’s austerity, where vocal lines are often unaccompanied, relies on expressive delivery of every note and phrase, something only partially achieved by this young cast. Lorna McLean was an assured Sāvitri, Joe Chalmers a smoky voiced Death and Steven van der Linden a clearly articulated Satyavan, but nuanced phrasing only made an intermittent presence with a consequent loss of emotional impact. Hidden from view, the female chorus felt a little underpowered, while conductor Tim Redmond drew periodic mysticism from the 12 -piece ensemble.

Emyr Lloyd Jones (Blond Eckbert)
© Guildhall School | David Monteith-Hodge

Blond Eckbert is another model of economy, this pocket version of 2006 glistening with magical charm and gifted with an orchestral score reflecting its unsettling narrative: Eckbert and his wife Berthe are visited by Walther, who mysteriously knows the name of her childhood dog Strohmian. Wary of Walther, Eckbert kills him only to find out from an old crone that Berthe was his sister. In response to this news, he collapses and dies alone. This Guildhall performance left a vivid impression that underlined the work’s disturbing ambiguities, helped by Anna Bonomelli’s neon-lit cottage and a visually striking alphabet forest (an obstacle course of giant lettering) that loomed over Act 2 and added a further layer of paranoia. The work’s unease was well projected by Alexandra Meir’s Bertha, hands clasped in anguish, while Emyr Jones drew sympathy as the naïve and mentally fragile woodman Eckbert. Jonah Halton as Walther and Louisa Stirland as the athletic bird fulfilled their roles with aplomb. From the pit Redmond and his superbly efficient instrumentalists underlined Weir’s smoothly integrated lyricism and neurosis.