Mavra/Pierrot Lunaire, Royal Opera House, review: comedy, melodrama and exceptional singing

·3-min read
Egor Zhuravskii and Sarah Pring in Stravinsky’s one-act opera Mavra - Helen Murray
Egor Zhuravskii and Sarah Pring in Stravinsky’s one-act opera Mavra - Helen Murray

Stravinsky’s half-hour parody comic opera Mavra was one of his failures. He thought it up in London while at the Savoy Hotel in 1921, and it was premiered in Paris to an uncomprehending, baffled audience. One of the few people who appreciated its craft was the composer Poulenc. Yet it has a witty libretto based on a Pushkin tale about a family looking for a new cook, cleverly versified by Diaghilev associate Boris Kochno.

It’s rarely performed these days, though I remember it in the London Sinfonietta’s survey of all Stravinsky’s work a generation ago, and so made an ideal subject for revival by the Royal Opera’s enterprising Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, in a double bill with Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.

We are supposed to hear in it echoes of the native tradition of Glinka and Tchaikovsky, but that may just be the composer trying to put us off the scent and confuse his audience. It sounds more directly derived from the sharp-edged language of Stravinsky’s Les Noces and the Octet, especially as for this staging at the Linbury Theatre with its tiny pit, the score was very effectively reduced for a chamber ensemble by Paul Phillips.

There are only four characters, who poke fun at many situations in the comic opera genre. In order to advance their love, Parasha and the hussar Vasily hatch a plot for Vasily to appear as the new cook Mavra. In Rosanna Vize’s skittish designs, this is all accomplished in a kitchen filled with blancmanges and piled up, discarded rubbish bags, while April Koyejo-Audiger as the ardent Parasha in excellent voice, and Egor Zhuravskii as the awkwardly costumed Vasily duet mock-rhapsodically.

The highly experienced Sarah Pring as Mother waxes nostalgic about their last “perfect” cook, while Idunnu Münch as Neighbour muses aptly on the difficulty of finding a suitably modest replacement “when the cost of living climbs so quickly”. So far, so funny, and Anthony Almeida’s direction makes the most of the latent surrealism in the story while not exactly aiding intelligibility.

The plot collapses when the new maid Mavra is caught having a shave, in this case aided by the vast amounts of cream ladled onto the blancmanges. Yes, it’s totally mad, but somehow in tune with Stravinsky’s brittle score.

There is a compelling contrast between the early 20th-century composers Schoenberg and Stravinsky. The former was the would-be creator of a new tradition of composition with 12 notes, developing as he hoped a single line of new music, while the latter was the magpie-like adopter of all styles from all sorts of music past and present, creating an open, flexible approach to tradition.

Stravinsky won that battle for the future, but, along the way, Schoenberg created some historic scores, among which the solo song-cycle Pierrot Lunaire stands as a classic. Its 21 songs demand a concentrated virtuosity from the soloist, combining singing with speech and half-sung poetry of extreme precision and subtlety.

It can be done coolly, detached, but here Almeida encouraged Alexandra Lowe into a powerful, no-holds-barred performance. The characters from Mavra appeared as shadowy figures around a swirling light that echoed Pierrot’s relationship with the moon.

For one song, the flute from the ensemble joined Lowe on stage; for another, she jumped down into the pit – it was an amazing display, coolly controlled by Michael Papadopoulos, who conducted both works with the outstanding players of the Britten Sinfonia, especially the precision pianist Michael Sikich.

Until 22 May; roh.org.uk

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