We know Gustav Holst best for his panoramic suite for orchestra, “The Planets,” but for someone whose fate was having the lion’s share of his posthumous reputation rest upon one work, he was actually fairly prolific and diversely inspired.
As the Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival got under way Friday night, among the first performances was a rarely heard chamber opera by the English composer, reflecting his longstanding interest in Hindu religion and culture. “Maya: Illusions” bookends his 1908 opera “Savitri” with two Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda (in the composer’s translation from the Sanskrit, not a language many composers have known well, to put it mildly).
Intimate Opera of Indianapolis thoughtfully provided a program with an explanation of the concept of “maya,” the illusion believed to influence all of unenlightened humanity in its mistakenness about the nature of reality, plus a sketch of the story and a note on the production concept. Too bad Holst’s name wasn’t included, because the opportunity for further acquaintance with such a creative figure comes up too rarely — especially in IndyFringe, where the works and attitudes of the present moment are king.
With an ensemble of flute, violin and double bass conducted by Dan Whilser, the performance was keyed to the striking vigor and passion of Meagan Searles Todd in the title role. Her costuming — a white dress extended into what looked like an outspread parachute across the full stage of the Cook Theater at Indiana Landmarks Center — gave a physical representation of the woman’s dream-world.
“Savitri” immediately takes us into the title character’s dream, a disturbing confrontation with death and loss of love and life. There are lots of words in Holst’s libretto, and quite a few of them did not come across, though Todd’s firm projection was a model of clarity. Part of the general obscurity was due to the occasional thickness of Holst’s writing, showing the influence of an enthusiasm for Richard Wagner that the English composer found difficult to shed.
The specter of Death (baritone Sean Manterfield) is counterpointed with the earthly passion of love (tenor Lucas Wassmer as Satyavan) as forces urging different values upon Savitri. Cling to life and accept its mists of illusion? Or yield to death’s alluring promise to lift the veil?
The opening scene was powerful, tough to bring off musically, but convincing. There was some suspect intonation here and there, but most of the singing rang true. The change of lighting and the Wagnerian oomph in the music when the flowing garment becomes (through mostly hidden human hands) a bulwark separating the resolute heroine from Death constituted a dramatic high point. It was a case of the visual and the musical elements coming together in a unified manner that’s the glory of the art form that Intimate Opera of Indianapolis champions.
Half of the performances will have another soprano and tenor, with the four-voice women’s chorus and Manterfield appearing all six times. Based on Friday’s premiere performance, this musically and philosophically peculiar examination of a worldview most Westerners are only dimly aware of was handsomely represented.