Savitri / At the Boar’s Head

Gustav Holt
Northern Opera Group
Morley Town Hall

Meeta Raval (Savitri) and Kamil Bien (Satyavan) in Savitri. Credit: Ant Robling
Andrew Slater (Falstaff) in At the Boar’s Head Credit: Ant Robling

Known for its interest in esoteric operas which rarely get performed, the Northern Opera Group has chosen to focus on the operatic works of Gustav Holst—the English composer best remembered for his mighty orchestral suite The Planets.

Holst only wrote four operatic works, but they all differ significantly from each other. The centrepiece of this year’s Leeds Opera Festival consists of two short pieces: the first is a sombre work about love overcoming death (Savitri) and the second is a garrulous tavern comedy (At the Boar’s Head).

Based on a story taken from the Sanscrit epic the Mahābhārata, Savitri tells the story of the eponymous heroine (Meeta Raval) who loses her precious husband, Satyavan (Kamil Bien), and entreats Death (Julian Close) to restore him to life.

This was my first encounter with Savitri, and I was supremely moved by Raval’s impassioned performance, which contrasted nicely with Close’s suitably forbidding Grim Reaper. Despite having little to do—indeed he’s dead for most of the running time—Kamil Bien lends sweetness to the role of Satyavan.

The intensity of Savitri is served extremely well by a female chorus whose unearthly singing adds to the supernatural drama of the piece. Equally effective is the restrained playing of the Skipton Camerata.

The second piece, At the Boar’s Head, is based on fragments from Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, and the lively hubbub of the production could hardly be more different from Savitri’s minimalism.

Set entirely within the Boar’s Head pub, Holst’s opera focuses on the relationship between Sir John Falstaff (Andrew Slater) and his young protégé Prince Hal (Jospeh Doody). Over the course of an hour, we gain insight into these iconic dramatic figures and the many secondary characters who frequent the tavern.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the energy of Emma Black’s direction (there is some wonderful drunken carousing on stage), and the rich performances of its ensemble cast (particularly from the two leads), the production still left me rather cold overall—particularly, in comparison with the emotive power of Savitri. In truth, I feel that this has more to do with Holst’s original composition, which has little sense of narrative impetus, rather than the sterling work of the Northern Opera Group.

Reviewer: James Ballands