Holst’s 1916 chamber opera centres on Sāvitri’s attempt to save her husband Satyavān from death; the bulk of the opera sets a conversation between Death and Sāvitiri. It’s a more reflective than dramatic piece in structure and in music, but it has an appealing dreamlike quality that was nicely played up in this production.
The opera was most effective when director Judith Lebiez embraced the static nature of the piece, creating arresting tableaus, most strikingly with the emergence of the chorus, dressed in white robes. Moments of more dynamic stage business were sometimes awkward or over-literal, Satyavān’s jarringly cardboard axe a case in point. The disembodied voice of Death coming from the back of the auditorium at the beginning of the piece was remarkable, but his walk into the auditorium at the end much less so. Musical director Naomi Woo coaxed a remarkably full sound from the small onstage orchestra, and ensemble was precise. The female chorus were expressive and subtle, making an ethereal sound, although there was a slight intonation problem in one of the unaccompanied sections. There were also occasional balance problems between the chorus and the principals. As a whole, however, the music was given a sensitive, varied and affecting performance.
In the title role of Sāvitri, Parvathi Subbiah was captivating, giving the role spontaneous and natural inflection. She sang richly and powerfully, although her diction could have been a little clearer at times. As Death, James Quilligan was an imposing, if sometimes stiff, presence on stage. He managed the role admirably: there were one or two tricky moments at the top of his range, but he produced a resonant and even flow of sound and projected the text extremely well. As her husband Satyavān, James Micklethwaite made a clarion sound; it isn’t a generous role, but he made the most of it. All the principals engaged with the declamatory style, and it rarely sounded disconnected and was never monotonous. The unaccompanied opening between Death and Sāvitri was particularly impressive, with absolute certainty and commitment from both Subbiah and Quilligan.
Sāvitri is an always intriguing and often captivating piece of theatre, with some really fine musical performances. The very characteristics that could have held it back – its wordiness, its repetition – were performed in way that produced an almost hypnotic power. This production makes a convincing case for Sāvitri as a piece of drama and for Holst’s music.