Guildhall School of Music & Drama – Opera Double Bill – Gustav Holst’s Sāvitri & Judith Weir’s Blond Eckbert

Gustav Holst

Sāvitri – Opera in one Act to a libretto by the composer [sung in English with English surtitles]

Judith Weir

Blond Eckbert – Opera in two Acts to a libretto by the composer after Ludwig Tieck’s Der blonde Eckbert [2006 ‘pocket’ version; sung in English with English surtitles]

Sāvitri – Lorna McLean
Satyavān – Steven van der Linden
Death – Joe Chalmers

The Bird – Louisa Stirland
Berthe – Alexandra Meier
Eckbert – Emyr Lloyd Jones
Walther / Hugo / Old Woman – Jonah Halton

GSMD Opera Chorus & Orchestra
Timothy Redmond

Ashley Dean – Director
Anna Bonomelli – Designer
Andrew May – Lighting
Jonathan Waller – Fight director

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 5 June, 2023
Venue: Silk Street Theatre, London

Two chamber operas, both concerning encounters with death and set within a forest with all the symbolism that that entails, but with rather different conclusions, though a moral may be drawn from both.

Gustav Holst’s Sāvitri is a more philosophical story (based on an episode from the Sanskrit epic Mahābhārata) about love triumphing over mortality as the eponymous character repudiates Death’s offer to give her anything she wants after carrying off her husband Satyavān. Disenchanted with everything else that life has to offer apart from Satyavān, she realises what he had taught her that everything, even Death, is Māyā or illusion, and Death himself is vanquished.

Lorna McLean articulates the part of Sāvitri with flair, while Satyavān is sung cheerily by Steven van der Linden with the sort of flexibility of folksong, rather than any solemn or austere religious chant which Holst’s sparse setting can evoke. Joe Chalmers makes an immediate, vivid musical impact as Death – even when singing offstage in the first scene – with rich vibrato, lending the part a suave seductiveness before his defeat. Rather than exoticise or orientalise the work, Sāvitri appears as a dowdy housewife in a cardigan, and Satyavān in the chequered shirt of a lumberjack. A frilly orange staircase with candles, down which Death descends introduces a camply frivolous element.

Judith Weir’s Blond Eckbert was premiered at the Coliseum in 1994 but is presented here in its subsequent ‘pocket’ version for reduced forces and omitting the chorus. It adapts a fairy-tale by the early Romantic German writer Ludwig Tieck – more a dark cautionary story like those that would be collected and adapted by the Brothers Grimm than anything uplifting or cosily entertaining. Louisa Stirland’s Bird is the most powerful and varied of the cast here, varying between soubrette-like flamboyance and darker-toned seriousness as she starts and then occasionally contributes to the retelling of Blond Eckbert’s story, with the sort of omniscience that parallels the part of the Woodbird in Wagner’s Siegfried.

Eckbert encounters, in turn, Walther, Hugo, and then the Old Woman, perhaps somewhat like Wotan in different guise as the Wanderer stalking the action of Siegfried, also demonstrating uncanny knowledge of people and events. The former two are alter egos of the Old Woman herself, who brought up Eckbert’s wife, Berthe, as a child when she had run away from her parents who treated her badly. The Old Woman shared her pasture with the magical Bird and a dog, whose name Berthe has forgotten as an adult. It is when their friend Walther inadvertently recalls its name ‘Strohmian’ that Berthe and Eckbert’s anxiety and paranoia are aroused, fearing that he will reveal the secret of Berthe’s background, that she left the Old Woman to explore the world, and stole the Bird and some of the jewels that it miraculously laid instead of eggs.

Eckbert learns from the Old Woman that Berthe’s hardships as a youngster were about to end before she absconded from her. The point seems to be that Berthe’s peremptory action merely perpetuated what appears to be something of a curse or evil influence that she bears and has failed to exorcise – not only has Eckbert killed Walther on her account because of the suspicions he has incited and she then dies, but the Old Woman’s revelation that Berthe was Eckbert’s half-sister leads to his insanity and death. The opera tells all that rather more than showing it, leaving few openings for a director to impose much of a concrete idea upon a production. But as an essentially psychological drama, even if the characters are given comparatively little to do, it feels right that the few objects present are reduced to the point of abstraction: illumined lines to sketch out Eckbert’s house in the prevailing darkness, and the absent Strohmian embodied in the letters of his name spread over the stage in huge metallic sculpted forms to create a forest around which Eckbert staggers in confusion.

Although Emyr Lloyd Jones sounds rightly troubled and circumspect as Eckbert from the outset, he could develop the role more. Admittedly his disjointed music tends to preclude that, as also does that for the three related roles of Walther, Hugo, and the Old Woman, which Jonah Halton sings somewhat diffusely, where there could be more depth and mystery. Alexandra Meier conveys Berthe’s troubled nature with conviction in music that is more nervously extrovert.

In Sāvitri Timothy Redmond conducts the chamber ensemble in a subtle, dappled account of the music’s translucent textures, but which builds up to quite a flutter in the central dialogue between Death and Sāvitri with almost something like the hyperactivity of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. The unseen female chorus restores an apt sense of the unearthly. More sustained, mellow sonorities are brought to bear in Blond Eckbert, rather making one wish that it were more richly scored than it is.

Further performances to June 12

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