Opera in 3 acts
Music: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Libretto: Victor Burenin, after Pushkin’s poem Poltava
First performed: Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, 15 February [OS 3 February] 1884, conducted by Ippolit Al’tani
Tchaikovsky’s two best-known operas are his naturalistic works, Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades, both based on Pushkin. To my mind, though, his historical operas are more exciting.
Mazeppa was Tchaikovsky’s sixth opera, a powerful drama about a controversial politician and a troubled father/daughter relationship.
Was Ivan Mazepa, Hetman of the Ukraine, villain or patriot? At the Battle of Poltava (1709), he deserted the Russian army, and went over to the Swedes, who had promised Ukraine independence if they won. The Russians still see Mazepa as a traitor, and the Orthodox Church anathematized him; but the Ukrainians have proclaimed him a national hero since independence in 1991.
Tchaikovsky draws on Pushkin’s 1828–29 poem Poltava, but focuses on the protagonists’ relationships rather than on the battle.
Mazeppa has fallen in love with his goddaughter, Mariya, daughter of the nobleman Vasily Kochubey. He refuses to permit the marriage, so Mazeppa tries to take her by force.
Mariya loves Mazeppa, and decides to go with him. Her parents write to the Tsar, Peter the Great, accusing Mazeppa of plotting with the Swedes. He’ll curse the day he became Mariya’s godfather, as he writhes in agony on the Moscow executioners’ rack! An exciting ensemble brings down the curtain on the first act.
Peter, however, doesn’t believe Kochubey, who is imprisoned and tortured in Mazeppa’s dungeons. He will be executed the next day. Upstairs, Mazeppa plans his campaign to liberate the Ukraine. He’s also worried about Mariya; estranged from her parents, she does not know of her father’s plight, and Mazeppa fears that she may go mad.
Mariya herself is worried that her lover is neglecting her; he promises to make her his queen should he succeed. Lyubov, her mother, bursts in, and begs her to plead for her father’s life. The women are too late; in a powerful scene, Kochubey is executed, and Mariya loses her mind on the spot.
An orchestral Entr’acte describes the Battle of Poltava, when Russia defeated the Swedes.
The turncoat Mazeppa is on the run, and comes to Kochubey’s now ruined estate in search of Mariya. Andrey, a young man in love with Mariya, confronts him, but Mazeppa’s henchman shoots him. Mazeppa realizes that Mariya is insane, and leaves without her. Andrey dies while Mariya sinks further into madness.
Mazeppa may well be my favorite Tchaikovsky opera.
It starts, let it be said, unpromisingly. The first act has lots of arioso and soft-focused music, but there are two good ensembles: the quarrel scene, and the Act I finale, where Kochubey and his clan vow revenge.
Act II, though, is remarkable. The prison scene is strong, rather harrowing. Mazeppa’s soliloquy, his duet with Mariya, her duet with her mother all make gripping theatre. There aren’t any big tunes, but the music arises naturally from the situation.
The execution scene is hugely powerful, with a beautiful prayer duet. It seems a response to Mussorgsky. It’s clearly modelled on the crowd scenes in Boris Godunov; the chorus argues and talks among itself; and the drunken Cossack is a naturalistic, typically Russian character, like Mussorgsky’s Fool. We even hear, later in the score, the famous march that appears in the Coronation Scene and in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Maid of Pskov.
Act III is on a slightly lower level of inspiration; it deals with the aftermath of the battle, and the focus moves from Mazeppa to Mariya, now mad. Mazeppa walks offstage, as in Pushkin’s poem, several minutes before the end. What happens to him isn’t stated, so his story doesn’t feel resolved; although presumably a Russian audience would have known their history! The opera ends with a mad scene as duet; the dying Andrej wants Mariya’s attention (“Wake up, I’m dying!”), while she sings lullabies to her imaginary baby. It’s touching, but an oddly undramatic way of ending the opera.
To watch: Nikolai Putilin (Mazeppa), Sergei Alexashkin (Kochubey), Irina Loskutova (Mariya), and Larissa Diadkova (Liubov), with the Kirov Theatre Orchestra & Chorus, conducted by Valery Gergiev, St. Petersburg, 1996. DVD & CD: Philips. Benchmark recording.
To listen: Sergei Leiferkus (Mazeppa), Galina Gorchakova (Mariya), Sergei Larin (Andrej), Anatoly Kotcherga (Kochubey), and Larissa Diadkova (Liubov), with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and Stockholm Royal Opera Chorus, conducted by Neeme Järvi. Deutsche Grammophon, 1993.