British Youth Opera – Vaughan Williams’s Riders to the Sea & Holst’s Savitri

Vaughan Williams
Riders to the Sea – Opera in one Act to a libretto based on the play by J. M. Synge
Savitri – Opera in one Act to a libretto by the composer based on an episode from the Mahabharata

[Both sung in English]

Riders to the Sea
Maurya – Claire Bennett-Jones
Bartley, her son – Huw Montague Rendall
Cathleen, her daughter – Josephine Goddard
Nora, her younger daughter – Harriet Eyley
A woman – Beth Moxon

Death – Matt Buswell
Savitri – Sofia Larsson
Satyavan – Adam Temple-Smith

BYO Chorus
Southbank Sinfonia
Geoffrey Paterson

Rodula Gaitanou – Director
Simon Bejer – Set Designer
Laura Jane Stanfield – Costume Designer
Mary Demetriou – Movement Director
David Howe – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 9 September, 2015
Venue: Peacock Theatre, Portugal Street, Holborn, London WC2

Riders to the Sea – British Youth Opera at the Peacock Theatre. Claire Barnett-Jones (Maurya) and Josephine Goddard (Cathleen)Photograph: Clive Barda/ArenaPALThese two works infrequently appear in a full, professional staging, remaining largely the province of colleges and festivals, but British Youth Opera has stepped up to the mark with its double-bill of visually eloquent and direct productions in musically first-rate performances.

It’s fascinating to hear how British opera in the early-twentieth-century marked time – not only in Vaughan Williams’s and Holst’s stage-works but also in those by, for example, Delius and Ethel Smyth – on the outer reaches of the repertoire while assimilating influences, with Vaughan Williams and Holst respectively absorbing Debussy and Wagner into their styles – the point made with disarming clarity by BYO’s thorough musical preparation.

John Millington Synge’s play, set on the remote Aran Islands off the west-coast of Ireland, supplied Vaughan Williams with a direct line to the elemental and spiritual, expressed in music that combines epic harmonic sophistication and folk-like immediacy. If ever you needed a reminder that Riders to the Sea is a great work, this performance provided it. Synge’s tragedy – in which Maurya achieves a sort of grace after her youngest son joins his father and five brothers by being drowned at sea – is saved from its extravagant misery by the redemptive quality of the music. For the singers, the vocal lines are not that challenging technically but, like Janáček, they need singers in tune with the music’s speech-inflected style. Harriet Eyley and Josephine Goddard (as Maura’s daughters) were entirely sympathetic (with natural-sounding Irish accents), and the only sadness was that much of Synge’s text (which Vaughan Williams set almost word-for-word) was lost, although I suppose its extreme Irishry could have been distracting in surtitles.

Savitri – British Youth Opera at the Peacock Theatre. Sofia Larsson (Savitri) and Matt Buswell (Death)Photograph: Bill Knight for BYOThe two singers lacked for nothing in their intense engagement with the roles, supporting Claire Bennett-Jones’s excellent Maurya – a woman much acquainted with grief. She geared her powerful singing and acting towards a devastating account of the climactic lament of a mother who has nothing left to lose, as tragic in its way as Dido’s. As Bartley, the last surviving and soon-to-be-drowned son, Huw Montague Rendall, personable and blessed with a fluid, characterful baritone, made his mark.

With the main musical interest in the orchestra, Geoffrey Paterson and the Southbank Sinfonia delivered a performance of outstanding, luminous refinement. Confirming the work’s stature, Rodula Gaitanou’s direction and Simon Bejer’s designs struck a fine abstract-realist balance, its most striking element the group of Maurya’s drowned men-folk bathed in ghostly, watery light throughout, and David Howe’s lighting in general gave the staging a wonderful scope and grandeur.

My template for Holst’s Savitri has been Janet Baker’s recording, to which she brought her unique, serene anxiety. This BYO staging, though aimed more at spontaneity and with probably the most opulent staging I’ve seen, with Bejer’s set of blossoms and candles firmly and sensually Indian, graced, again, with Howe’s marvellous lighting. It’s a remarkable work – at any time you feel the chamber orchestra could easily segue into Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, yet the music never veers off in the opposite direction into Orientalism. What I heard of Holst’s libretto – and how I yearned for surtitles this time – confirmed his success at creating a synthesis of Hindu and English culture, without a hint of self-conscious, Anglo-Indian hybrid.

The singers sounded completely at ease with the idiom, and played the story – Death claims Savitri’s husband Satyavan, but Savitri outwits Death with the conundrum that without life there can be no death – with unaffected simplicity. Sofia Larsson used her flexible, bright mezzo to combine wit, nobility and weight in a passionate portrayal of the title-role. Matt Buswell as golden-faced Death had physical and vocal presence in abundance and he opened the work with some impressive, lyrical unaccompanied singing. Adam Temple-Smith’s radiant tenor and attractive persona made the role of Satyavan all the more vivid. Paterson’s conducting and the Southbank Sinfonia’s playing was full of quick-witted nuance and the women’s chorus was superbly atmospheric. There is one further performance, on the 12th, so you’ll have to be quick to catch this terrific double-bill.

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