HGO’s open-air Sāvitri marks opera’s return to London

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Holst, Sāvitri: Soloists, Chorus, HGO Orchestra, Thomas Payne (conductor). The Lawn, Lauderdale House, Highgate, London, 11.8.2020. (MB)

Holst’s Sāvitri © Laurent Compagnon


Director – Julia Mintzer
Assistant director – Eleanor Burke
Choreography – Anna-Lou Mary
Company manager – Ryan Wilce
Props – Charles Ogilvie


Sāvitri – Esme Bronwen Smith
Satyavān – Alex Aldren
Death – Theo Perry
Dancer – Laura Calcagno

Opera returns to London. As we know it? Yes and no — but then, is that not always the case? Convention dictates that one does not review dress rehearsals, but what is convention in times such as these? More to the point, I have permission to write and should not have dreamed of doing so without. HGO (formerly Hampstead Garden Opera) and its ever-enterprising impresario David Conway deserve our deepest gratitude and heartiest praise for merely conceiving of this project, let alone for bringing it to the garden stage with such zest and conviction.

First performed in 1916, another time of troubles — also, as now hear ad nauseam, shortly prior to another pandemic — Sāvitri, more importantly, was conceived for outdoor performance, ‘or else in a small building’. No small building here, though a fascinating large building, Lauderdale House, made for a lovely backdrop to events on the lawn below. Theatrical hustle and bustle between rehearsals — arriving just after the first, I saw the second cast — brought to mind of another opera premiered that year, Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, at least in the final version we all know and love. A bird flew overhead, sang cheerily, and: action…

Birds of the forest, perhaps the Indian jungle, we heard. A woman wrote in red on glass. A man, unseen, singing with perfect pitch and diction, evoked something beyond, physically and metaphysically. Music, drama, opera were reborn before our eyes and ears, both the oneness in veil of illusion of Holst’s Mahābharata piece and that of the endlessly reborn and reinvented bastard progeny of an Athens that never was. In Julia Mintzer’s thoughtful, elegant staging, we were able to make connections, yet never pushed unduly. Sāvitri (Esme Bronwen Smith) in her struggle with the Death (Theo Perry) that would take her husband could stand for the creative act itself, both abstract and concrete (Holst), but also in a time of pandemic could lead our thoughts elsewhere, whether particular or universal. ‘The world has now become a grave.’

Were those English, imperial memories we saw and heard? Perhaps, given the summery lightness of costume, orientalist harem pants and all. Above all, however, these were bodies, physical in their fear and trembling, archetypal in the stylised shaping of Anna-Lou Mary’s choreography. Space was rethought, Satyavān (Alex Aldren) approaching our vision from behind, Death heard and occasionally seen from around us, even from within the house: the word, long and lingering, its musical shadows, as well as the character. Yet that use of space flowed, like Holst’s score, Straussian artifice put to one side in favour of something winningly ‘natural’, whatever the undeniable art and craft involved. Likewise Thomas Payne’s keen conducting, alive to the ebb and flow of Holst’s chamber orchestral subtleties — and its harmonies. Harmony, the greatest glory of Western music, Schoenberg’s final word: how we have missed you these long months ohne Musik.

For the small female chorus sounded as if discovering music for the first time. The primal, wordless sounds from the Burning Bush in Moses und Aron came to my mind, however simpler the particular means; Evensong too, albeit the distinctly superior version of the college and cathedral choirs singing Holst’s own Nunc dimittis (1915, as I later discovered). The Death of Music, even of Anglican music, might yet be stopped, as Sāvitri conquers Death and saves, in quiet ecstasy, her beloved. Chords could be heard in all the evergreen freshness of, say, Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music, and yet built and rebuilt in different ways, the ninths and beyond — that word again — of Holst’s imagination gently yet surely staking out their own territory. ‘Art thou the Just One? Art thou Death? Or art thou but a blind spirit, knowing naught of what is round thee? Give me life!’ Music is death, yet is far more than death, just as it is maya, yet far more. Holst, like the Schopenhauerian Wagner, knew that — even as he distanced himself, or thought he did, from that most overbearing of operatic predecessors. We may wait a while for our next Meistersinger, just as for our next Moses. Art, however, will find a way, not only along those paths, but along others not yet seen. We must find a way too.

Mark Berry

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