Over the weekend, the Cambridge Chamber Ensemble’s mounted three performances of Gustav Holst’s bold and daring chamber opera foray into the mystic world of sacred Sanskrit writings. Holst recast the story of the princess Savitri and her encounter with Death who comes to claim her husband, the woodsman Satyavan, a former prince who, like her, has chosen to live a happier life in exile to the forest. Known by his most famous symphonic work The Planets, itself a reflection of his interests in astrology and theosophy, the composer saw himself as a mystic and a seeker. He began to study Sanskrit and the sacred writings of Hindu teachings which resulted in several settings of the poems of the Rig Veda between 1902 and 1912, as well as a larger opera (Sita from the Ramayana), the cantata The Cloud Messenger-Ode, and Indra, a symphonic tone poem.
Savitri took place in Oakes Ames Memorial Hall with its H. H. Richardson architecture and Frederick Law Olmstead landscape design, a building rich in history and with excellent acoustics is part of the Community Preservation Coalition plan to reinvigorate this landmark as a performance center as part of the Easton Shovel Town Cultural District. And the small town of North Easton has no fewer that 5 listed examples by Americas premiere Romanesque revivalist.
With the dazzling work of stage director David Gammons, Cambridge Chamber Ensemble transformed the entire 47′ x 57′ Great Hall into the performance space, placing the cast amidst the audience as well as on stage. Visually and aurally, this offered a feast of the senses very close to what Holst envisioned as an outdoors in as natural a setting as possible, to envelope the audience inviting them to become a part of the drama.
And dramatic it was, despite the small forces — a cast of three main characters, a chorus of four spirits, and an orchestra of two flutes, English horn, three violins, two violas, two cellos, and a bass — the ensemble soared exquisitely with ever-building intensity and dynamism, in part due to Holst’s skillful writing for small forces, but also due to the enthusiasm and skill of the performers smartly directed by Music Director Stephanie Beatrice. Opening with the rich a cappella voice of Death (Junhan Choi) calling out to Savriti (Tahanee Aluwihare) who answers at first in denial, the two singing without accompaniment in modalities different not only from each other, but also shifting into two different modes within their own voice. The opera begins and ends with these a cappella melodies, serving as a type of ‘leitmotiv’ or identifier.
Holst’s use of bi-tonality, exotic modes, chromatic shifts and extended complex harmonies, shifting meters, and shimmering special effects and textures, and unique scoring point to a progressive modernism that set him apart from his contemporaries, while at the same time he often reverted to the lush writing of late romanticism, even employing the Wagnerian chromaticism he was deliberately trying to overcome, and the ever popular British folk-song employed by both traditionalists and modernists alike.
The ever-positive Satyavan, Savriti’s husband played by tenor Michael González, denies his impending death, proclaiming it as merely illusion (‘maya’). His death scene stunned us both visually and in sonically; the chorus of female spirits, using the all-female four-part choral writing of his settings of the Rig Veda poems supported him enchantingly. As they attend the dying Satyavan their arms deport in a classical Indian dance form representing the many arms of Shiva. Overcome by Savriti’s beauty and her grief, not to mention the exquisite poetic and dramatic singing by Aluwihare, Death eventually recants and allows her to revive Satyavan back to life. Thus, death itself becomes also illusory. Holst’s opera only touches on a part of the story of Savitri, which is her encounter with death that results in the resurrection of her husband. To place the whole of the story in proper context, the ravishingly costumed classical Indian dancer Kavya Prasad, using recorded narration, and underscored by authentic Indian music, told the entire tale of Savitri and Satyavan in a prologue.
The visionary Cambridge Chamber Ensemble Producer and Board President Martha Birnbaum chooses unique and underperformed operatic gems and seeks bright, energetic, and enthusiastic performers and directors to create an artistic experience that enlightens as well as entertains.