Gustav Holst, the English composer best known for his orchestral suite The Planets, was a man of many interests and influences, musical and otherwise, from Walt Whitman to Wagner, socialism to Hindu mysticism. Among other accomplishments, he contributed to the genesis of 20th century English-language opera with his brief one-act work of 1908, Savitri (Opus 25), based on an episode from the the ancient epic known as the Mahabharata, with a libretto translated from the Sanskrit by the composer.
Michael Scarcelle, left, Rufus Müller, and Heather Johnson in "Savitri," presented with "The Wandering Scholar" at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Tina Buckman
Savitri and her woodsman husband Satyavan live a rough existence in the woods sustained by a deep devotion to one another, until Death personified pays them a visit. It's a distressing tale in Holst's chamber opera version, in which the bulk of the heavy musical lifting falls on the mezzo-soprano who plays Savitri – at the evening performance I attended, the crystal-voiced and emotionally intense Heather Johnson. Philip Shneidman, Founder and Artistic Director of the little OPERA Theatre of NY, which we have to thank for this production, stages Savitri like a silent-era horror film, with exaggeratedly slow movements, breast-beating emoting, and actually scary special effects.
The mesmerizing Ms. Johnson was ably matched by tenor Rufus Müller as her devoted husband Satyavan, though he strained on a few high notes. As Death, bass-baritone Michael Scarcelle was effectively terrifying, but his tone tended to lack clarity. A choir of eight female singers added angelic seriousness to the sombre scenes with episodes of Holst's haunting multi-part harmonies. The music overall is a careful balance of the harmonious and the unexpected.
I would have enjoyed this spectacle more, though, had it preceded rather than followed the lively and humorous The Wandering Scholar, a work from later in Holst's life (opus 50) which the composer never lived to see performed. It's hard to image Holst not liking this version, a chamber-performance reduction created by Benjamin Britten and Holst's daughter Imogen Holst after the composer's death, with a libretto by Clifford Bax.