It is springtime in modern Russia, and the sun shines brightly through the windows of two different houses. In each house there is a portrait of a deceased occupant, but the glistening new season calls for a moving on, with love calling in very different ways on both houses with the arrival of a decidedly strange new maid in one and a boorish debt collector in the other. Two Russian Tales were told in lightly vodka-fuelled sparkling form in the intimate opera studio at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow.

Kenneth Reid ('Mavra') and Victoria Stevens (Parasha) © KK Dundas
Kenneth Reid ('Mavra') and Victoria Stevens (Parasha)
© KK Dundas

Stravinsky’s Mavra is an opera so short and small scale it completely baffled the Parisians when it premiered there in 1922. Derek Clark, Head of Music at Scottish Opera, conducted the tiny ensemble of just a piano, violin, double bass, flute and two clarinets. The music, like the action, is spikily mischievous and amusing as it pokes fun at a middle-class mother who tries to keep her love-sick daughter Parasha under control, underlined by Deirdre Dwyer’s playfully clever costume design. Bright woodwind was well supported by Marija Struckova’s powerhouse piano in an exciting performance of this difficult score. 

In the simple plot deriving from Pushkin’s Little House in Kolomna, the maid employed by the household has died, and in Ciarán O’Melia’s retro apartment with its scruffy G-Plan sofa and dayglow green walls, the dirty dishes are piled high and the spindly table is wonky. Victoria Stevens, in yellow dress and bright red tights, was all blonde hair and pouty sulks as Parasha, until an attractive Hussar passed by under the window. Her Mother and a Neighbour decide that a new and cheap maid must be found, so Parasha is sent to find one, returning with Vassili, her promising lover, in disguise as Mavra who is put to work ‘night and day’. It all goes well until Mavra is rumbled by the Mother when he is discovered shaving, and makes his escape out of the window as the opera ends, presumably leaving Parasha with a lot of explaining to do. Uniformly well sung (in Russian), the four characters made up a dynamic ensemble, with so much fun to be had from Kenneth Reid’s high heeled disguise.

Penelope Cousland (Popova) © KK Dundas
Penelope Cousland (Popova)
© KK Dundas

It turned out that Mavra was a surprising and delicious starter to what was an astonishing main course. Willian Walton was asked to write an opera for Aldeburgh and came up with The Bear, an ‘extravaganza in one act’, an adaptation of a short play by Chekhov. Like Mavra, there is a strong element of Russian parody in this three-handed tale of family grief, debt, pistols and finally love. Derek Clark’s chamber orchestra performed this witty score with pinpoint precision and perfect balance as it moved from lyrical to almost music-hall with Façade hints thrown in with some truly lovely solos and a very busy percussion section.

The widow Popova’s living room was more tastefully and better furnished than the house where Mavra worked. Popova is perpetually in mourning as she sits on her sofa in front of daytime TV (decidedly not flatscreen) looking at pictures of her favourite horse and ugly deceased husband on the wall as the pile of used tissues grows on the floor. Her servant Luka, in a well-sung strong supporting role by Ciprian Serban, urges her to snap out of it, but it takes the arrival of Smirnov looking for immediate money to settle her late husband’s debt to ignite the spark.

Penelope Cousland (Popova) and Alexey Gusov (Smirnov) © KK Dundas
Penelope Cousland (Popova) and Alexey Gusov (Smirnov)
© KK Dundas

Popova and Smirnov are both forceful, opinionated larger-than-life characters and for this opera to work well they have to be matched carefully. In this performance (the roles are double cast in the run) mezzo Penelope Cousland and Russian Alexey Gusev both gave huge performances of characters who will simply not give way to each other. From her sobbing entry, Cousland stood up, turned off the TV and her rich mezzo opened up thrillingly to regale tales of her abusive husband, at one point showering Smirnov with hundreds of his love letters written to other women. Gusev with his warm full baritone gave as good as he got, rudely planting himself on the back of the sofa, demanding vodka and violently throwing cushions and emptying a sack of the horse’s oats all over the floor. The slowly developing explosive relationship was well directed by Tom Creed, with a lovely switch from ruthless to tenderness as Smirnov taught Popova the correct stance to take to shoot him with a pistol. Against all odds, tenderness wins.

The Bear may not be the most subtle of operas, but the combination of lively humorous music and a pair of singers I would travel a distance to hear again tomorrow made this an absolute treat.