OMTA's production of Savitri is a wild departure from what one might expect from a musical theater organization. Gustav Holst is no John Kander and Savitri is a far cry from Cabaret. Preluded by Dominick Argento's song set From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, director Levke Haas has put together a very operatic evening that aims to deconstruct the "weak and shallow women portrayed in opera, theater, and musical theatre throughout history."
From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, immediately sets the serious tone of the evening. The Pulitzer Prize-winning song set, performed by conservatory junior Ariadne Votava, was Argento's attempt to musically approach the complex and controversial mind of Virginia Woolf. Utilizing excerpts from her diary that range in topic from anti-World War II sentiments to the memories of picnicking with her parents, these songs are by nature very theatrical.
Votava, as one of the most high profile sopranos in the conservatory and boasts solo appearances with the Musical Union and major roles in various opera and musical theater productions, sings this set with extraordinary conviction. Avoiding the melodrama that is easily imaginable with such emotional text, Votava's presence fills the huge performing area as fully as her voice, which is incredibly rich and never sounds strained.
The inclusion of this work during an evening of musical theater is possibly the only questionable aspect of From the Diary of Virginia Woolf. The song set is definitely a dramatic work, attempting to give insight into the mind of one of the most influential modernists, but at times Virginia Woolf feels more like a voice recital with props than something that a theater goer is seeking. Though the serious opera fans that Savitri brings will appreciate hearing the acclaimed and respected song set, Virginia Woolf can not escape the fact that it is just a song set.
Votava does an excellent job of making these songs more apt for the theater, but attempting to fill out the incredibly complex character of Woolf as a character for the stage based only on these songs is incredibly ambitious, especially considering the limitations of the diary excerpts that are fairly disconnected in both chronology and content. Whether or not the challenge that Virginia Woolf presents to expectations of a theater audience is met, the performance of the work is well-staged, well-directed and most of all, very well-sung.
Other programming questions might be raised concerning Virginia Woolf's compatibility with Holst's 1924 opera Savitri. In the program notes Haas explains that it was an attempt to feature "women who exist and negotiate the society that surrounds them," and this connection, as well as the more obvious themes surrounding ideas of human mortality, link the two works well. Physical details of the production, such as the inclusion of a set of seven small stones, also aid in underlining the connection. Where Virginia Woolf ends by alluding to Woolf's notorious suicide by walking into a river with her pockets filled with stones with the small circle of stones at center stage, Savitri opens using the same stones to address other questions of mortality.
Aside from this, Savitri is completely different from the first scene. Relying on much more complicated costuming and a chorus of dancers who shape themselves into the set it is immediately apparent that Savitri is on a much grander scale.
The first sound - of Marc Callahan's huge baritone from the balcony above the seats accompanied by an off stage chamber orchestra - is a radical change from Votava's soprano that the audience grows so attached to and familiar with during Virginia Woolf. Callahan, cast as Death, delivers one of the most memorable performances of Savitri. His voice is resonant and warm, and he commands the attention of the audience every time he is present on stage. Though at times his acting falters, he is acting the part of Death, hardly the most believable character imaginable in any script.
The casting of Savitri is solid across the board. The character of Savitri, played by artist diploma student Erika Tolano, is sung beautifully, and well matched with conservatory junior James Morera, cast as Satavan, Savitri's new woodcutting husband who needs to be rescued from the arms of death. Tolano's easily meets the demands of her character throughout, both in her acting and singing.
Savitri has moments of truly mystical beauty, most of which can be credited to the offstage chorus, whose addition to the production is crucial in making the fairy tale of Savitri work. The decision to have them placed above and behind the audience, on the balcony of Wilder Main, allows their addition to the score evoke a surreal resonance in the performance space.
OMTA's hour-long presentation of these two works is a daring departure from what might be expected under the premise of "musical theater." The obvious amount of preparation that the producer Levke Haas and musical director Timothy Heavner have invested in this project pays off, and though Savitri and Virginia Woolf challenge audiences by way of programmatic cohesion, it is not a presentation to be missed.
OMTA's presentation of Savitri and From the Diary of Virginia Woolf runs from today to Sunday in Wilder Main Space. Performances begin at 8 p.m.
Copyright © 1999, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 127, Number 22, April 30, 1999
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