>Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

AUFBAU 64:11 May 22, 1998 p13
Tchaikovsky's Opera "Mazeppa" at the Met:
Love Knows No Age
726 words
by Leonard Lehrman
Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU

In 1977, following a visit to New York the previous year by the Bolshoi, the Metropolitan Opera produced two operas in Russian in the same season for the first time, and hired a couple of new directing and conducting staff members fluent in Russian for the occasion. A revival of perhaps the greatest Russian opera of them all--Musorgski's Boris Godunov--opened the season, and Tchaikovsky's greatest opera--Eugene Onegin--was presented by the company in Russian for the first time. The repertoire would eventually include also the former's Khovanschina and the latter's Queen of Spades.

With Valery Gergiev now the Met's first principal conductor, a visit of his Kirov Opera has finally brought Tchaikovsky's third greatest opera, of eight (not counting his first two, which he destroyed), to the Met. Will the Met now add Mazeppa to the repertoire of the regular season? Will the judgment be made based on the tumultuous applause the work received? Or by the not very high box office figures? There is certainly an audience familiar with Russian culture out there for it in New York, but how many potential operagoers could afford the steep prices this time around is another question.

At any rate, if you like Tchaikovsky's Onegin and/or his one-act opera Iolanta (which has also received a few local productions lately), you'll recognize and like at least parts of Mazeppa. The title character's Act I musings (handsomely delivered in the Kirov production by Victor Chernomortsev) on the agelessness of love will instantly recall the famous bass arias from both these masterpieces, as will the ensembles and dance scenes of the same act which could only have been written by Tchaikovsky. The drama is beautiful and poignant as Maria (beautifully sung by Tatiana Pavlovskaya) stops the fighting over her between her father Kochubey (the charismatic Sergei Aleksashkin) and her godfather Mazeppa. In reality, the girl was called Motrya, and when she ran away to be with Mazeppa, he sent her back to her father. (See Clarence A Manning's Hetman of Ukraine : Ivan Mazeppa.) A cloister was named after her in her native Baturyn. But having her run away with Mazeppa and then go mad in the third act proved much more useful for operatic purposes than the historical truth in this case.

The second act, with its focus on the torture of Kochubey (who denounced the Cossack hetman Mazeppa to Czar Peter the Great, only to be turned over by the czar to the hetman for punishment), may remind some of Don Carlo, Tosca, or Andrea Chenier, for better or for worse. Act III opens with an orchestral depiction of the Battle of Poltava, the climax of Peter's war against the Swedes, with whom Mazeppa took sides against him in an effort to lead an independent Ukraine, and then had to flee into Turkish exile. It is a curious amalgam of the folk-hymn "Slava"--used by both Beethoven in the "Rasumovsky" Quartets and Musorgski in the Coronation Scene of Boris--and the opening hymn of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. Before an evocative mural an impressively pompous onstage band of 15 brass players and 2 percussionists performed in it by heart. But the rest of the third act is an unalloyed lyric delight, as both Maria's mother Lyubov (sung by the full-throated mezzo Lyudmila Shemchuk) and unrequited tenor suitor Andrei (a purely fictional character, sung affectingly by Victor Lutsiuk) are allowed to come into their own with many wonderful vocal moments. The final lullaby for the soprano ends the opera on an eerily wistful note, recalling to this listener similar endings in works such as Boris, Wozzeck, and Sima.

Though it would not be easy to find a cast or train a chorus and ballet to perform the work as well as the Kirov did, I for one would not at all mind seeing and hearing this opera again. Perhaps next time the summoning of Mazeppa's men with a shot into the air could be more convincingly staged, and the town of Belaya Tserkov could be given its proper name rather than quaintly and literally translated as "White Church." Twenty-seven years ago our Moscow guide asked us if we wanted to go to "The Big Theater or The Little Theater" meaning the Bolshoi or the Maly. Some things are just not meant to be translated.

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