Against the Grain Theatre have released a location shot film of Holst’s Sāvitri on Youtube. It’s a very beautiful film with some fine music making but I really wonder why anyone would choose to lavish their talents on this particular opera.
So let’s start with the opera which is a short one act piece for three soloists, twelve piece band and female chorus. It’s based on a fairly well known story from the Mahabharata. Sāvitri has married Satyavān despite knowing that they will have only a year together. When Death comes for Satvayān he is so struck by her virtue that he grants her one wish as long as it’s not her husband. Sāvitri asks for “life” and goes on at considerable length to explain that this must include Satyavān because “life”, for a woman, means bearing children; warrior sons and child bearing daughters. The Spartans would have approved.
Musically it’s not especially interesting either. It has its moments but mostly it’s Wagner lite (i.e. long passages of rather dull accompanied recitative) mixed up with bits that sound like the tweer end of Vaughan Williams folk song settings. It’s probably what Edward Blunden would have written if he’d written music rather than poetry. So there we have it. A curious mishmash of Victorian conventionality, Indian mysticism and village cricket in Sussex.
The film though is lovely to look at. It was shot on location in woods in Prince Edward County. The costumes are fabulous and the acting is good. There are some interesting uses of special effects and in general the cinematography is quite “old school”; long, carefully composed shots, no monkey cam and a general assumption that the audience has an adult attention span. The result may fairly be described as “painterly”. I think director Miriam Khalil and cinematographer Dylan Toombs have created storytelling and a visual world that rather beautifully evokes the nature of the story.
The music making is good too. Meher Pavri is an appealing and tuneful Sāvitri, Andrew Haji does some proper tenoring as Satyavān and, as he does, sings as well in the English style as any young tenor in Canada. Vartan Gabrielan’s sepulchral bass is perfect as Death. The band, under the luxury leadership of Marie Bédard, are very good though perhaps balanced a little far back. Simon Rivard conducts effectively. The Holst is bookended by a visual introduction and credits sequence featuring music by Arnab Chakrabarty on sarod and Shahbaz Hussain on tabla.
The video and audio quality are top notch. Unusually it’s shot in 2.35:1 aspect ratio (i.e cinema style rather than the usual 16:9 of TV and video). There are Hindi, French and English subtitles. In summary, I really don’t think it’s a very good opera but it is a very beautiful film. Although it’s on Youtube it’s cunningly hidden. One has to register for access but it’s free. Here’s the registration link. It will be available until end of day July 11th.