Review: Sāvitri

by Lynn on June 26, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Streaming on the Against the Grain Website

By Gustav Holst

Directed by Miriam Khalil

Conducted by Simon Rivard

Director of Photography, Dylan Toombs

Sound design and engineer, Pouya Hamidi

Costumes by Ming Wong

Cast: Vartan Gabrielian

Andrew Haji

Maher Pavri

Against the Grain Orchestra and Chorus

Arnad Chakrabarty, Sarod and composer

Shahbaz Hussain, Tabla and composer

Sāvitri is a chamber opera by Gustav Holst that had its first performance 100 years ago to the day this began streaming for Against the Grain Theatre, June 23, 2021. The opera is based on an ancient Hindu legend from the Mahābhārata about a wife’s total love and devotion for her doomed husband. 

As I have done with opera etc. in the past, I’m commenting on the story and the production’s  theatricality, not on the music or singing.

 Sāvitri is a contemporary 40 minute film of the outdoor chamber opera by Gustav Holst. The princess Sāvitri, meaning gift from the gods, was born to her parents after they prayed every day for 18 years for a child. The Sun God rewarded their devotion with a daughter, Sāvitri. She was cherished and blessed. She was also very beautiful and that seemed to intimidate men when it was time to marry, so Sāvitri took it upon herself to find her own husband.

She fell in love on first sight with Satyavān a forest-dwelling prince whose family was exiled from their kingdom and forced to live a life of seclusion and hardship. Satyavān  made a living chopping wood. Satyavān is destined to die one year into his marriage. He doesn’t know this

but Sāvitri does. She marries him anyway. She is totally devoted to her husband for that year and they are blissfully happy, but her thoughts are occupied by images of the dark clad God of Death named Yama who is coming for her husband.  Yama is so taken with Sāvitri’s devotion that he grants her a wish, as long as it’s not to spare her husband’s life. She is grateful and also wily. How she gets more life is a wonderful turn of events in the legend.  

The piece works a treat as a filmed outdoor chamber opera. It’s directed by Miriam Khalil, an opera singer in her own right, in her directing debut. Khalil beautifully uses the lush countryside of Prince Edward County, Ontario to create images of Sāvitri, and Satyavān in their beautiful traditional Hindu wedding costumes (kudos to designer Ming Wong) of rich silks in vibrant colours.

Khalil uses arial shots effectively as well, as the loving couple twirl each other in a circle, their costumes flaring out in the air. The devotion and love between the couple is beautifully established as they walk close together along a lush path or gaze at each other as they sit on the ground and talk. The juxtaposition of the loving couple with the imposing figure of Yama coming for his next soul, is quite impressive. This of course makes the proposed final outcome after a year, hard to consider. The shots of Yama, alone in a field, beckoning, his arm out with his open palm extended,  seem gentle and delicate in a way, as a gracious invitation to follow.

The couple are shot in clean focus, devoted to each other and seemingly inseparable. Foreboding is suggested when Yama is captured in shot after shot out of focus, an image whose presence is suggested rather than clearly there. Sometimes Yama appears emerging out of smoke. It’s all very compelling.

I thought the acting by the three singers was fine: Maher Pavri played Sāvitri, Andrew Haji played Satyavān and Vartan Gabrielian played Yama.

Against the Grain is a gutsy opera company that does chamber operas from other cultures. Keep them in your radar.

Sāvitri streams on the Against The Grain website

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.