HGO succeeded in bringing live opera back to London in August 2020 with an open-air, socially-distanced production of Gustav Holst’s Sāvitri, a tale of life, death, illusion and hope powerfully resonant with our times. This was the first live opera production in London following the COVID epidemic and brought glowing reviews.
Review by Hugh Canning: Hampstead Garden Opera at Lauderdale House, Highgate, London, August 13 Following the lead of Opera Holland Park’s ‘homecoming’ concerts in the empty space where its cent usually stands, presented co appreciative paying audiences spaced two metres apart, Hampstead Garden Opera went a step further with its two-per-night presentations of Holst’s delicate chamber opera, for a public separated in squares behind Lauderdale House on Highgate Hill. Here the chamber orchestra, deftly conducted by Thomas Payne, sat under a covered canopy at the side of the ‘stage’ which spilled out from the back of the house into the garden where we sat.
In a far-from-ideal acoustic, the musicians projected Holst’s discreetly evocative writing, and the singers a remarkable proportion of his own text, based on an episode from the Sanskrit epic, the Mahdbhdrata. Savitri may not be an action-packed drama, but Julia Mintzer’s austere staging, enlivened by a solo dancer (Laura Calcagno) perhaps representing the introverted heroine’s extrovert alter ego, and eight jovial ‘coryphees’ (choreographed by Anna-Lou Mary) proved a dignified and rewarding attempt to breathe theatrical life into a work which, though far from unknown, has had few professional stagings in this country in my opera-going lifetime. Savitri was first produced by amateurs in 1916 and conceived by the composer for performance ‘in the open air or else a small building’, so it proved well-suited to a production of this kind with young singers.
Mintzer’s clean, pared-down concept-in contemporary costumes, with only a nod towards the Indian origins of the tale-suggested analogies with the Ancient Greek myth of Alcestis, the female Orpheus, who braves the underworld to reclaim the life of her departed husband, with the help of Heracles. In Savitri, the heroine is confronted by the personification of Death-first heard calling co her offstage, unaccompanied who is so moved by Savitri’s grief at the loss of her husband Satyavan that he offers her a boon of anything she desires apart from Satyavan’s return to life. Her argument that life without Satyavan is no life at all finally wins Death over; he retreats, the happy couple are restored to one another and Savitri sings her song of thanksgiving, unaccompanied. It’s a subtly moving piece, undemonstrative-and if Holst’s libretto sounds archaic, and the philosophical concept of’Maya’ (delusion, dreamworld) seems unnecessarily arcane, in performance the opera’s unpretentious soundworld is undoubtedly cathartic.
HGO fielded two casts (at two later performances, a third Savitri, Lizzie Holmes, appeared). For the two performances on the opening night, Joanna Harries and Esme Bronwen-Smith sang the impassioned Savicri, both with crisp, light mezzos, Jack Roberts and Alex Aldren were lyric Satyavans with excellent diction, and Dan D’Souza and Theo Perry intoned Death’s doom-laden utterances with appropriately saturnine bass-baritones. The rain mercifully held off until ten minutes before the end of the first performance, when the audience was lightly drizzled upon, but it had cleared in time for the second-slightly less well attended, but with audience enthusiasm undampened.
Opera, October 2020, HUGH CANNING