On paper, Stravinsky’s one-act opera Mavra (1922) has everything, from cross-dressing to sharp repartee. At only 25 minutes, it gives four singers a chance to show off their comedy chops at top speed. You guessed it. In the theatre it feels twice as long and inert. The Paris premiere flopped. Stravinsky defended it, but it remains an oddity. The Royal Opera’s Jette Parker young artists programme comes as close to turning it into a silk purse as anyone could. This chamber version (by Paul Phillips), directed by Anthony Almeida, designed by Rosanna Vize and played by Britten Sinfonia, is paired with Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire, conducted by Michael Papadopoulos at the Linbury theatre.
Based on Pushkin, Mavra tells the tale of a poor widow and her pretty daughter, who need a new maid. The daughter, Parasha (April Koyejo-Audiger), plots with her soldier boyfriend, Vasily (Egor Zhuravskii), to get him under her roof. Vasily must become Mavra. “She” totters in wearing red heels, full frocks and long ginger tresses: not standard domestic servant wear, but looking fabulous. Sarah Pring (mother) and Idunnu Münch (neighbour) ably complete the quartet. Bright, stiff, 1960s-style dresses, mad wigs, a heap of green bin bags and a dizzying expanse of rose-covered wallpaper helped pass the time.
Elements of Mavra reappeared in Pierrot lunaire (1912), notably a spherical lamp, to represent the moon in this hallucinatory melodrama for speaker and small ensemble. The soprano Alexandra Lowe delivered the taxing sung speech (Sprechgesang) with well-drilled flair and a sense of improvisation. Schoenberg’s crepuscular score was made unusually sensuous by the Britten Sinfonia. Special praise to flautist Thomas Hancox, who braved the stage – having to retreat backwards in near darkness, still playing (from memory) – as if born to it.
At the Barbican last Sunday, first there was anticipation as more and more London Symphony Orchestra players squeezed on to the Barbican stage. Then came the action: Mahler’s Symphony No 5 (1904), conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas and ignited by the LSO’s new principal trumpet, James Fountain. Still in his 20s, Fountain now occupies a UK orchestral hot seat (his illustrious predecessors include Maurice Murphy, a trumpet legend). On this evidence, assured and pure-toned, Fountain is a brilliant appointment. The instrument dominates the symphony, which opens with a baleful solo fanfare and never quite loses that sense of foreboding.
Live music on this scale, requiring nearly 100 players, was all but absent in lockdown. Hard to imagine we will ever again take its presence for granted. Tilson Thomas shaped Mahler’s grand contours with clarity, yielding and reining in, without indulgence or schmaltz. The LSO in response, as if overwhelmed by the occasion, at times let wildness win over precision, but it made for an exciting account. For the first three movements the conductor’s score lay closed on the stand, like an encouraging talisman. Tilson Thomas recently announced his decision to cut back on concerts owing to serious health issues. Superficial parallels with Mahler, preoccupied with his own mortality when writing this symphony, inevitably came to mind, but MTT was having none of it. He merely waved a fist in the air in greeting, professional as ever, and began.
At the start of the Adagietto, he finally opened the score, using it for the remainder of the work. This famous fourth movement (immortalised, if it needed to be, by Visconti in his film Death in Venice), was the highlight, the mood tender but not lugubrious. The finale, a major-key affirmation, was met with cheers, the audience on their feet. Before the Mahler, Lukáš Vondráček was a mesmerising soloist, now poetic, now devilish, in Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 in E flat. If occasionally he seemed to go his own way, why not, in this uneven, eccentric work? We were kept agog.
The theme of this year’s London festival of baroque music is Venice. The event launched last weekend at St John’s Smith Square with the splendid coronation of the 89th doge, Marino Grimani, in 1595, as reconstructed by Paul McCreesh and Gabrieli, his consort of players and singers. Cornetts and drums, sackbuts and organs, and vocal ensembles of different sizes, grouped and regrouped in the galleries and aisles, conjuring the loftier spaces and sacred atmosphere of St Mark’s Venice. The music was by Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, and Cesare Bendinelli. This is familiar terrain for these exceptional musicians, who perform it often and have recorded it twice. They’re taking it to Manchester (12 July) and York (13 July). Go and be transported. Not quite La Serenissima, but close.
Star ratings (out of five)
Mavra/Pierrot lunaire ★★★
LSO/Tilson Thomas ★★★★
A Venetian Coronation ★★★★
Mavra/Pierrot lunaire is at the Linbury theatre, Royal Opera House, London, until 22 May
The London festival of baroque music ends on 21 May