Holst Triple Bill at the Leeds Opera Festival

Gustav Holst may be well known for The Planets and even the choral piece Hymn of Jesus, but his operas have not been widely performed.  Obsessed by Wagner in his early career, he eventually came to acquire a personal voice for the stage only with small-scale works and we must be grateful to the ever-enterprising Northern Opera Group for an evening of three of these at their annual Leeds Festival.

Savitri, first performed during the First World War, reflects Holst’s interest in Hindu literature and philosophy. The libretto written by himself is derived from the Mah­ābārata and is a fable of a wife’s struggle with a personification of Death. It was a favourite role of Janet Baker and her advocacy helped gain some currency for the work. Musically, it makes its impact through largely restrained orchestral colour, with just a hint of Indian harmonies. The celestial sounds of an offstage female chorus  serve to convey the spiritual essence of the opera although, unfortunately, it reminded me too much of film music for a Hollywood romance.

Meena Raval had the vocal weight and dramatic presence to make a convincing Savitri and Kamil Bien was her freshly-voiced husband – he also was able to remain prostrate and immobile during her prolonged encounter with Death. As the latter, Julian Close’s resonant bass struck a suitable degree of terror throughout the auditorium. Lewis Gaston, conducting the Skipton Camerata, exerted expert control.  Emma Black’s production and George Johnson-Leigh’s designs were less successful. The decision to make the setting quasi-realistic, with Indian silk drapes and the serving of tea, worked against the text and music and generated problems for the performers, uncertain as to how to  move on stage; a dark, abstract approach would have been preferable.

The same creative team was responsible for the staging of At the Boar’s Head,  drawn from Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Predictably the goings-on at Mistress Quickly’s tavern were better suited to their style of presentation, although the stage movements of the largish cast could have been more inventive. The same criticism cannot be levelled at Holst’s score with its zestful melodies, drawn mainly from traditional folksong and woven into a flowing accompaniment to the banter between Falstaff and his followers, as well as his bitter-sweet encounter with Prince Hal. The composer undoubtedly took a risk in retaining Shakespeare’s text, which is wordy and not always compatible with the musical idiom.  But overall this is a masterly short opera which faithfully captures the contrasting themes and moods of the original play: the coarseness and jocular humour of “low life” against the coldness and haughtiness of courtly expectations; the fabrication of valour against the honesty and loyalty of comradeship. Unquestionably, it deserves to be performed more often.

Veteran Andrew Slater was the accomplished Falstaff, rounded in vocal expression as well as girth, making much of the well-articulated text and conveying poignancy in his farewell to Hal, as well as his clumsy courting of Doll Tearsheet. He was joined by a group of excellent young performers, amongst whom should be mentioned: Joseph Doody, a smoothly singing Hal, restrained and obviously ambivalent regarding his present and future relationships with the attendant company; Rosemary Clifford, a blowsy Doll with a heart of gold; and James Corrigan whose rich bass made its mark in Pistol’s late appearance. Lewis Gaston energetically drove the piece along, while allowing space for the moments of introspection and sentiment.

Strangely enough, given the musical and dramatic strength of these two works, it was the curtain-raiser, Holst’s last opera, The Wandering Scholar, which theatrically gave most satisfaction. Compared with Savitri and The Boar’s Head, this is a flimsy piece of nonsense about a poor and hungry scholar whose singing thwarts the amorous plans of a priest and a farmer’s wife. Yet the portable, almost makeshift performance – over the Bank Holiday weekend it was going on to seven more venues in the Leeds area – caught exactly the flavour of the work, rendering it both amusing and aesthetically pleasing. The director Jim Osman and designer Rachel Rea played it as commedia dell’arte with grotesque costumes and stylised caricatured movements. The outstanding young cast – Aidan Edwards (farmer), Juliet Montgomery (his wife) Eugene Dillon-Hooper (priest) and Roger Paterson (scholar) – clearly relished this approach and yet did not neglect the musical niceties in Holst’s spare but lively score. This had been successfully transcribed for two instruments, presumably by Festival Director David Ward, who himself played the clarinet.

Altogether, an enjoyable evening of music theatre given by the Northern Opera Group with its customary energy, enthusiasm and enterprise, and demonstrating that Holst’s operas are indeed worth an outing.