Igor Stravinsky’s one act comic opera, Mavra, is delightfully intimate, colorful, and whimsical.
Unfolding in a mere 30 minutes, the opera features two arias, a duet, and a quartet, performed by a cast of four characters. Based on Alexander Pushkin’s poem, The Little House in Kolomna, it has been described as a “satire of petit-bourgeois manners.” The libretto was written by Boris Kochno, a young assistant to the dance impresario, Serge Diaghilev.
Set in a Russian village around 1840, the synopsis is fanciful and surreal:
Parasha is in love with her neighbour, Vassili, a young hussar, but they have difficulty in meeting. After they sing a duet, Vassili leaves, and then Parasha’s mother enters. She is lamenting the difficulty of finding a new maid-servant after their prior maid-servant, Thecla, died. The mother orders her daughter to find a new maid-servant. Parasha comes up with a scheme to smuggle Vassili into her house disguised as Mavra, a female maid-servant. The ruse initially succeeds, and Parasha and Vassili are happy at being under the same roof. Parasha and her mother go out for a walk. At one moment, Vassili shaves. The ladies return, disconcerted to see their new maid-servant shaving. Vassili escapes out the window, her mother faints, the next door neighbour rushes in to try to help, and Parasha laments the loss of her young love.
Mavra is scored for a spare orchestra made up of a colorful cast of voices: a string quintet, 22 woodwinds and brass, and timpani. It is one of the first works to mark the beginning of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period. The May 18, 1922 premiere at Paris’ Théâtre de l’Opéra was a failure, primarily because the large venue overwhelmed the opera’s small scale. Later, its brief duration made it uneconomical to perform. Yet, shortly after completing the work, Stravinsky wrote, “Mavra seems to me the best thing I’ve done.”
Throughout Mavra, the flowing lines of eighteenth century Italian opera buffa collide with Russian syllables and peasant music. In his 1941 essay, Pushkin: Poetry and Music, Stravinsky wrote of his aversion to the “romanticized folklore” that inspired the “Russian Five” composers (Cui, Borodin, Balakirev, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov). As with Tchaikovsky, he found Pushkin to be a “classic Russian” who attempted to “unite the most characteristically Russian elements with the spiritual riches of the West.” Appropriately, Stravinsky dedicated Mavra “to the memory of Pushkin, Glinka, and Tchaikovsky.”
The melancholy spirit of Tchaikovsky seems to hover over the opera’s brief Overture. We hear it in the gloomy, brooding clarinets, and in the plaintive woodwind chorale in the final bars. The curtain rises on Parasha’s aria, a lamenting Russian peasant song with an incessant and emotionally detached “Oom-pah” accompaniment (2:37). Suddenly, Vassili bursts onto the scene (4:17) with a military song. Parasha’s mother (7:58) intones a new Russian lament. In the final quartet, Vassili’s identity is revealed, and the farce is brought to a sudden and dramatic conclusion.
The violinist Samuel Dushkin made an arrangement of Parasha’s Russian song for violin and piano. Here, it is played by Nathan Milstein: