The Royal Opera’s Jette Parker Young Artists have opted for modernism for their first post-lockdown production, with a double bill of Stravinsky’s Mavra and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, conducted by Michael Papadopoulos and directed by Anthony Almeida. It’s an unusual pairing. Stravinsky’s 1922 comedy, about a soldier cross-dressing in order to gain employment as a maid to his girlfriend’s mother, remains something of a rarity. Nowadays, meanwhile, we would usually expect to encounter Schoenberg’s moonstruck Pierrot in the concert hall rather than the theatre, though we should not forget that the work was originally a cabaret piece and later became a ballet, choreographed by Glen Tetley.
What links them, as Almeida’s staging makes clear, are ideas about gender and identity. Drag permits Vasily access to a world his masculinity denies him. Tradition, meanwhile, assigns the role of Pierrot to a woman, even though Schoenberg’s protagonist is male and the gender of the performer is undesignated in the score. Consequently what we first see, during the overture to Mavra, is Alexandra Lowe’s Pierrot discarding women’s clothes to become a Dietrich-like androgyne, while Egor Zhuravskii’s Vasily experiments with trying on Mavra’s wig. The problem is that Pierrot’s presence as a silent extra figure in the first few minutes of Mavra becomes seriously confusing.
A set of gaudily papered walls, with an enormous light hanging from the ceiling, meanwhile, also serves both works. Almeida’s approach to Mavra is vaguely absurdist, as bin bags pile up like Ionesco’s chairs in the absence of a maid, and Parasha (April Koyejo-Audiger) looks on in disbelief as her preposterous, perfectionist Mother (Sarah Pring) makes and discards endless blancmanges. It’s all a bit laboured, however, until Zhuravskii – looking terrific in his maid’s outfit – arrives to enliven the proceedings. In the Schoenberg, meanwhile, where Almeida is much more assured, the ceiling light becomes the moon and the walls slowly disappear as Pierrot yields to fantasy and hallucination. The characters from Mavra become shadowy figures in the surrounding darkness, and the flautist from the instrumental ensemble materialises on stage and hovers round Lowe like a mysterious lover.
Lowe gives a sensational, career-making performance here, pushing herself to her vocal limits in order to realise the expressive extremes of Schoenberg’s Sprechstimme. Zhuravskii, a singer to watch on this showing, dominates Mavra with his supple, elegant tenor. Koyejo-Audiger sounds good as Parasha, her warm tone contrasting with Idunnu Münch’s brighter voice as the busybody Neighbour.
Papadopoulos’s conducting in Mavra is crisp if occasionally heavy-footed, and he seems more comfortable in Schoenberg, where the Britten Sinfonia play wonderfully well for him. As a whole, not all of it works, though Pierrot Lunaire is often outstanding.