Mavra/Iolanta

Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Igor Stravinsky
Bayerische Staatsoper
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Mirjam Mesak (Iolanta) with young chorus Credit: Wilfried Hösl
Anna El-Khashem (Parasha), Freddie de Tommaso (Vassili) and chamber orchestra Credit: Wilfried Hösl
Freddie de Tommaso (Vassili) and Anna El-Khashem (Parasha) Credit: Wilfried Hösl
Freddie de Tommaso (Vassili), Anna El-Khashem (Parasha), Long Long (Vaudemont) and Mirjam Mesak (Iolanta) Credit: Wilfried Hösl
Noa Beinart (Mother), Freddie de Tommaso (Vassili), Yulia Sokolik (Neighbour) and Anna El-Khashem (Parasha) Credit: Wilfried Hösl

Tchaikovsky was one of the dedicatees of Stravinsky’s mini-opera Mavra and the 30-minute folk tale from Pushkin is a perfect companion piece for the earlier composer’s last opera, the one-act Iolanta.

It’s not the first time these two rarities have been staged as a double-bill, but what’s new about this excellent Bavarian production is that director Axel Ranisch splices the two works together into a single concept, Stravinsky providing the opening and closing, plus a middle section, with the most substantial Tchaikovsky between.

The Princess Iolanta is blind, but in order that she remains unaware of her condition, her father has banned all strangers from her presence. She is introduced here in a gilded cage, where the lonely girl, approaching womanhood, plays out her dreams of romance with puppets, replicated in the masked figures that act out her imagined drama.

The latter become Stravinsky's characters in the story about a Parasha, who smuggles her hussar lover Vassily into the household disguised as the cook Mavra. Iolanta wins her prince, Parasha loses her man, but there’s a dark side to both parts of the story, made darker by the twist introduced by Ranisch to reconcile the endings.

Stravinsky’s astringent satire is played by a bewigged on-stage sextet, piano, violin, bass and wind; the jerky movement of the dolls, in costumes by designer Falko Herold, match the spiky rhythms of the music, and the simple, banal dialogue is perfectly in tune with a story told by an adolescent starting to feel the stirrings of sexual desire.

As usual, Tchaikovsky rather fell for his heroine, and composed first the music for her central love scene with the knight Vaudemont. He would not have been disappointed to hear Estonian Mirjam Mesak—her rounded soprano sounds ravishing and she captures the wispy, fragile nature of Iolanta perfectly.

Vaudemont’s tender romance "You appeared to me like a heavenly vision" is a highlight of the piece, sounding like it might have come from the pages of Eugene Onegin, and sung with sensitivity by tenor Long Long.

Markus Suihkonen brings a noble suavity to King Rene's slow, melancholy, typically Russian lament "Oh Lord, is it for my sins" and Ogulcan Yilmaz brings out the folksiness of the magician Ibn-Hakia.

Anna El-Khashem and Freddie de Tommaso as Parasha and Vassili sing creditably and act with as much realism as is possible with huge immovable masks covering their faces for most of the performance.

The reduced orchestral version of Iolanta by Richard Whilds and chamber music arrangement of Mavra by Paul Phillips complement the acoustics of the small Civillies Theatre, and the recorded balance between singers and orchestra, conducted by Alevtina Ioffe, is ideal throughout.

Reviewer: Colin Davison