Nothing like a frigid blast and a daunting pileup of snow to give the Vivat! St. Petersburg festival an authentic Russian atmosphere. Too bad it had to wipe out some of the weekend's events. Luckily, just before the powdery white deluge, an audience was able to enjoy another kind of authentic Russian atmosphere -- indoors.
This was Opera Vivente's appealing From Russia With Love program in the Bakst Theatre at Evergreen House Saturday night. It's the only extant performance space designed by noted Russian artist Leon Bakst. Eighty years ago, he decorated nearly every square inch of the room with vivid, folk-inspired stencils, unknowingly providing a perfect ambiance for Stravinsky's vivid, folk-inspired comic opera Mavra, the main item on this Vivat! event.
Stravinsky ranked the short piece among his favorite creations, but performances these days are few and far between. The story couldn't be simpler. A hussar disguises himself as a female cook so he can work in the house of his girlfriend, whose mother discovers the deceit. Hussar flees. Curtain. It's all over in less than 30 minutes. But the plot really isn't the important thing here; it's the mood, the flavor and, above all, the music. Colorful, curvy melodies propelled by snappy rhythms evoke not only Russian folk music, but the occasional influence of early American jazz.
The score makes its full impact in its orchestrated form, but the piano-only arrangement used here worked just fine, especially since Jonathan William Moyer played it with such crispness and charm. With the performance confined to what seemed like only 6 inches of space in front of the piano (the theater's stage is too fragile to use), there was no way to offer a full-fledged production. But cute costumes by Norah Worthington and animated direction by company founder John Bowen made it more than just a concert version.
The cast, singing Robert Craft's translation of the Russian libretto, was headed by the bright, solid voices of soprano Amy Bonn (Parasha) and tenor Vijay Joshua Ghosh (The Hussar). Mezzos Stephanie Bramble (The Mother) and, especially, Fenlon Lamb (The Neighbor) filled out the picture nicely.
Mavra was preceded by several excerpts from Russian operas, all sung in the original language (how idiomatically, I could not say). The choices provided a telling reminder of the marvelous music and drama that Westerners get too few opportunities to savor. Only two of the operas represented could be considered part of the standard repertoire on these shores -- Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov and Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin.
The finale to the latter's Act 2 was dynamically delivered by the four Mavra singers and baritone Thom King. Although pressed at the upper range of his voice, King did powerful, communicative work in arias from Tchaikovsky's Mazeppa and Rimsky-Korsakov's Sadko. Ghosh gave a warmly phrased account of the gypsy's aria from Rachmaninoff's Aleko. Bonn was a great charmer, vocally and interpretively, in an item from Rimsky-Korsakov's The Snow Maiden, and Lamb brought expressive richness to music from Mussorgsky's The Fair at Sororchintzy. The two women also sang sweetly in the tender Natsha/Sonya duet from Prokofiev's War and Peace. Moyer was again a fluent, supportive accompanist throughout.
The whole evening reflected the wide-ranging value of Vivat!, which has inspired all sorts of musical activity around town that might otherwise not have materialized. Opera Vivente took quite a risk with this repertoire and the expenses involved with a new venue for the occasion; the risk paid off. Except on Sunday, of course, when a second performance had to be canceled because of the snow. A makeup performance is scheduled for 8 p.m. Friday. (Call Opera Vivente, 410-547-7997.)