Opera + Classical Music Reviews

A star is born in Pierrot Lunaire at Covent Garden

20 May 2022

Two for the price of one with Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg.


Egor Zhuravskii & April Koyejo-Audiger (Photo: Helen Murray)

After a two year hiatus, due to you know what, the Jette Parker Young Artists returned to live performances with a double bill of Stravinsky’s Mavra and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. The first, a twenty five minute comedy, showcased some telling ensemble work, while the second gave notice of the birth of a major new star in the operatic firmament.

Stravinsky’s opera takes a wry look at the absurdities of 19th century Italian opera, adapting Pushkin’s mock epic poem The Little House at Kolomna, and in the process creates a gallery of over the top characters. In this female only household, a young woman dresses up her boyfriend in drag to hoodwink her mother into allowing him into their home. True, Stravinsky preserves an element of mischief that’s prevalent in Pushkin, but the comedy as such is heavy-handed.

At least that’s how it comes across in Anthony Almeida’s staging. Slapstick is the order of the day as The Mother (the indomitable Sarah Pring) continually weeps, emotes, and anguishes over a selection of blancmanges and trifles. And before you can shout “he’s behind you” everyone’s covered in squirty cream. Of course, comedy in opera is always difficult to get right, as not everyone finds the same things funny. It’s only fair to report some of the audience were splitting their sides at the shenanigans going on on stage, while I barely raised a smile. But as the saying goes: you can’t please everyone all of the time.

At least musically there was much to admire. As suggest earlier, Sarah Pring brought a wealth of experience to the role of The Mother, and in many ways she was the lynchpin of the performance. Soprano April Koyejo-Audiger’s gleaming instrument gave due weight to the role of Parasha, her daughter, while Russian tenor Egor Zhuravskii was equally convincing as her lover Vasily – in and out of drag. His thrilling tenor voice rang out freely, and his acting was uninhibited. Idunnu Münch turned in a nice cameo as the Neighbour – her huskier tones complementing Koyejo-Audiger’s more bell-like voice nicely. Michael Papadopoulos conducted with a sure hand, and the reduced forces of the Britten Sinfonia responded with perfectly judged playing.

“…before you can shout “he’s behind you” everyone’s covered in squirty cream”

Alexandra Lowe & Thomas Hancox (Photo: Helen Murray)

Schoenberg’s expressionist melodrama, Pierrot Lunaire, is rarely staged – these days its outings are far more likely to be the preserve of the concert platform – so this was a rare chance to experience it as the composer intended. Part homage to the moon, part nightmarish journey into an emotional abyss, the demands made of the soprano soloist are immense. Not only is she in the spotlight throughout its 40 minute duration, but she also must achieve the almost impossible feat of making the sprechstimme and sprechgesang sound perfectly natural, while absorbing them into Schoenberg’s extremely complex vocal lines.

Alexandra Lowe met all these demands head on, never appeared fazed by any of the vocal acrobatics required of her and delivered a performance that was quite simply sensational. Almeida’s direction was subtle, and all at one with the piece. Once designer Rosanna Vize’s floral wallpaper backdrop rose to the flies, Lowe was alone on stage apart from a circular light above her representing the moon and a table. This allowed us to focus solely on Lowe – first appearing as an androgynous Marlene Dietrich-type figure who slowly morphed into a glamorous, silver lamé dress wearing femme fatale – who held the audience spellbound in a vice-like grip from the very first notes.

Not only was her singing persuasive and high voltage throughout, but she also contorted her body to mirror Schoenberg’s constantly shifting musical textures. Indeed her acting and singing were indivisible from one another. And what a voice – full and voluminous at the top, burnished towards the bottom, and all aligned to a rock solid technique. Based on this tour de force performance, she’s already a star – so we can’t wait to see how her career develops.

She was supported throughout by Papadopoulos’ faultless conducting and the exceptional playing of the five soloists – special mention going to Thomas Hancox’ mesmerising flute solos.

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A star is born in Pierrot Lunaire at Covent Garden