CCMS: Savitri and The Wandering Scholar

A varied double bill from CCMS persuades JOE BATES that Victorian Orientalist opera isn’t all about the Mikado.

clare college chapel clare college music society iwan davies savitri the wandering scholar william cole

Holst’s Savitri and The Wandering Scholar

Clare College Music Society

26th April, Clare College Chapel


The words ‘Victorian Oriental opera’ are not ones to inspire great confidence. The easy Gilbert-and-Sullivan stereotypes lurk sheepishly in the background, behind the debris of self-chastising post-colonialism. Yet Holst’s Savitri avoids such cliches, making light of its Indian heritage and focusing on the emotions of the compelling fable Holst himself translated from Sanskrit.

It is a tricky opera; a Hindu morality tale that eschews dynamic action. Its focus on the emotional development of the characters is potentially a directorial nightmare. Savitri is on stage for half an hour with little to do other than look scared, sad and happy in turn.

Director Charlie Risius tried to circumvent this difficulty through some engaging use of space. The ensemble was distributed throughout the chapel: the orchestra at the altar and the choir in the narthex (that’s ‘the far end’ to ye unbelievers). The hazy atmosphere created by this division of forces was extremely effective, despite the occasional lapse of meter and intonation that it caused.

Death and Satyavan entered from either side, providing the movement necessary to keep the dramaturgy alive. Unfortunately, some of the acting bordered on hammy, with wide flung “opera-hands” (like jazz-hands but more sedate) a shade too common.

Yet the excellent singing more than compensated for the odd acting lapse. All three characters had bold upper ranges, ensuring that climactic moments were truly gripping. Savitri’s (Jenny Ashworth) screaming high notes were genuinely hair-raising, although her lower ranger was sometimes lost in the milieu.

Particularly outstanding, and beautifully cast, was Iwan Davies as Death. At full pelt, his remarkably thunderous volume single-handedly drowned out every other musician in the room. Yet his clear, ponderous and remorseless tone softened beautifully as the plot developed, revealing the subtlety in Holst’s character.

William Cole’s chamber orchestra was generally unobtrusively accurate, though it lacked confidence of attack in the opera’s quieter moments. Whilst coordination with Oliver Pashley’s choir was generally well managed, the occasionally disjointed tempos made some of Holst’s modal dissonances sound more like muddy tuning.

Yet the spatial gambit paid off. Cole’s Savitri was a subtle success, its startling singers and engaging direction easily compensating for any minor lapses of synchronisation or stagecraft.

The static, bucolic atmosphere was utterly reversed by the medieval farce that followed. The Wandering Scholar is a buttock-pinching, thigh-slapping opera buffo set to irreverent music. Whilst the opera does not extend far beyond its crude innuendo and trivial plot, energetic acting and slick direction ensured that the audience was entertained throughout.

The drama seemed custom-made to appeal to the tired student in search of easy laugh. The cast of characters is at home in twenty-first century Cambridge as medieval France. The simple rustic (wittily clad in Barbour and wellies), the letchy priest, the cunning student and the girl with the roving eye were played with sympathy and cartoonish glee.

The singing was not as outstanding as Savitri – it had little opportunity to be – yet it worked well within its limitations. Whilst Alison’s (Anna Wagner) voice sounded a little stretched at points, her personable singing style and good comic timing bought endearing vigour to her role. The scholar (Bradley Smith) was well cast as charming, faux-naive student, his clear, airy voice rising nicely above the surrounding chaos. The final chase scene was particularly well choreographed, as fitting a foil to the still, serious Savitri as could be imagined.

William Cole’s evening was an enjoyable, well presented and well balanced affair. It was gratifying to see such unusual fare presented in such a persuasive manner.