Opera in Three Acts (Six Scenes). Running Time: 2 hours 27 minutes. The recording here is sung in Italian translation from 1954 with Ettore Bastianini in the title role with Magda Olivero as Marija, Boris Christoff as Kochubey and David Poleri as Andrej. The video (!) follows after the review.
PLOT: The Ukraine, beginning of the 18th century. Soprano Marija deserts her parents to marry her baritone godfather (which is illegal) even though there is a perfectly good tenor (Andrej) who is in love with her. Hubby allies himself with the Swedes and gets Marija’s father executed, causing her to go insane.
ACT 1: (56.30 minutes)
Scene 1: Kochubey’s estate on the Dniepr. (42 minutes)
12: The first ten minutes or so of the opera consists of a prelude which could have passed for the Doctor Zhivago soundtrack (including a brief lilting bit) followed by a very stereotypically Slavic sounding female chorus, all appropriate mood setters but nothing particularly interesting. There is a brief bit as the chorus is about to go off stage that is good though. Finally, after the girls continue their bit off stage, Marija comes on with an okay aria which is more interesting plot-wise than it is musically before Andrej finally comes to the rescue and gives us some serious sounding music * as he despairs of Marija’s illicit relationship for her godfather (Mazeppa) when he, Andrej, is madly in love with her. Tchaikovsky seems to be more fond of Andrej musically than he is of Marija (although is this surprising?).
24: Mazeppa comes on in a flourish. The peasants seem to love him and after a brief exchange with Kochubey, they go into a dance called the Hopak which sounds half-gypsy/half-Wagner’s dance of the Apprentices *.
29: The accompaniment to Mazeppa’s aria is more interesting than the vocal line *.The confrontation scene: Mazeppa asks for Marija’s hand in marriage and her father is disguised by the idea is the centrepiece of the plot because everyone’s fate hinges on it.
39: After the rejection, the peasants bomb out before Marija comes back on and declares that she will marry Mazeppa anyway to the horror of everyone. The orchestra finally starts to wake up with a bit that we will hear later in the prelude to act 3, but it somewhat too little, too late at this point *.
Scene 2: A room in Kochubey’s house. (14.30 minutes)
42: Another mood setting female chorus leads to Marija’s mother Ljubov bemoaning the loss of her daughter to Mazeppa *. Kochubey tries to comfort his wife, telling her that before his betrayal, Mazeppa had revealed to him that he was planning an alliance with the Swedes to liberate the Ukraine for Russia (isn’t this a rather tired idea?). Iskra, Kochubey’s friend, is all for the plan but they need a messenger to send word to Peter the Great of Mazeppa’s treason. Andrej volunteers thinking his life over without Marija, and everyone else reveals in the revenge they think it will destroy Mazeppa. Much of this scene consists of post-Wagnerian recitative, melodic and plot forwarding, but not all that impressive, punctuated by male choral out bursts from the Cossacks. There is some weird orchestration at 54 minutes as Kochubey goes over the plan. The finale chorus is a bit of a rouser.
Scene 1: Dungeon of Mazeppa’s palace.
0: The prelude is a combination of grim and romantically ethereal with a touch of the chromatic *. Peter decided to side with Mazeppa and handed Kochubey over to him as prisoner. Son-in-law has had him tortured and a false confession extracted. The entire scene consists of Kochubey in despair and Orlik (Mazeppa’s torturer) trying to extract even more information from the old man. Where is his treasure? There is no treasure, his honour is destroyed through false confession, Marija has been deflowered by her own godfather and now there is only the hope of Divine revenge upon Mazeppa which Kochubey will not see because he is to be executed.
13: There is a noble sounding theme from Kochubey at this point **. The scene ends with the first music that actually makes you realize that this is Tchaikovsky and not Mussorgsky, albeit good Mussorgsky. The torture continues.
Scene 2: A terrace of Mazeppa’s castle.
16.30: There is a three minute orchestral interlude which isn’t half bad *. It ranges through most of the emotions found in the opera (terror, romantic desire, darkness).
20: Mazeppa is worried, yes he can show no mercy with Kochubey but Marija is going to lose her mind after her husband has her father executed. This monologue is rather strong **. Orlik’s theme from the previous scene (the upward scales in the woodwinds) follow him around as he reports of Kochubey (nothing new to report sir).
25: Marija (finally) shows up again. Their duet is rather lovely but slow **. There is a bit in Mazeppa’s vocal line that sounds a little like the baritone aria in Iolanta. The strongest music here is Mazeppa’s not Marija’s, which is starting to become a pattern. Tchaikovsky almost seems to have deserted his heroine in favour of the boys.
32: Marija tries to fly out, it doesn’t work well but still *.
38: Marija (alone now) is incredibly agitated. Her mother shows up and this only increases into pandemonium as Marija realizes what Mazeppa has done. She passes out, her mother smacks her awake just as the procession can be heard in the distance leading Kochubey and Iskra to execution **. The two women frantically run off to try to stop the executions.
Scene 3: The Scaffold
41: Finally, with this choral sequence, the opera arrives into its own ***. Between the terror of the chorus and the tenor Cossack drinking song solo it is one of those ironic Russian scenic bits that only Tchaikovsky could pull off without everything bordering on ornery. A good march (on and off stage alternating) brings us to the two prisoners being led to the block.
49: Kochubey’s prayer *** has all the class of Delibes’ Pavane, and starts off sounding a little like it too. He is soon joined by Iskra (also about to be executed) and a new theme suddenly appears out of nowhere which will return later.
53: The chorus takes up the melody and carries it into an apotheosis as the men are led away to be executed but this is cut down by the fanfare leading to the execution (inevitable). Marija and Ljubov arrive just in time to witness the axes falling. The two women scream, Ljubov rejects Marija who instantly goes insane. It WILL make tears come to your eyes ***.
ACT 3: The ruins of the Kochubey estate.
0: Before the act proper there is a six minute orchestral portraying the Battle of Poltava ** during which the Swedes lose, and Peter the Great decides to hunt down Mazeppa. A series of Russian Tsarist themes are presented with some thunderous military music (one of which you may notice is the same tune as in the Coronation Scene in the Prologue of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.
6: Andrej’s aria is full of terror ***. We get a description of the battle and a fantasy about better times from him that is not dissimilar to Ines’ act five description of the poisonous Manchineel tree in Meyerbeer’s Vasco de Gama.
15: Andrej hears horses. Mazeppa arrives with Orlik. Brooding music as Orlik leaves and Andrej jumps out of hiding and challenges Mazeppa **. Mazeppa shoots Andrej (he does not die instantly however).
19: Then there is some music that sounds a little like the Dawn over the River Moscow prelude to Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina before Marija comes on totally out of her mind. She does not recognize Mazeppa and thinks that her father’s execution was a trick played upon her by her mother.
23: Marija is finally given a chance to emote and demonstrate her insanity in an amazingly orchestrated and melodic mad scene ***. Vocally she is all over the place as she talks about seeing blood everywhere, but the accompaniment is spot on. Mazeppa and Orlik leave her.
30: The last eight minutes of the opera mostly consists of a monologue for Marija, with interjections from the desperate and dying Andrej. Marija doesn’t recognize him but starts to cradle him in her arms and she sees that he is covered in blood from the gun wound. His final plea is utterly tragic ***. She starts singing a lullaby to him, he dies, and she then just stares out into the nothingness as the curtain falls.
There are some good things about this opera and equally there are bad things about this opera. The first act is musically and dramatically inept with the first scene being a parade of almost mindless yet scenic choral sequences of surprisingly low musical quality and brief plot forwarding and the scene change makes little dramatic sense because too much time has transpired for them to logically be in the same act, but alas the second scene is far too short to stand on its own. Then all of a sudden we are plunged into a prison scene and a total reversal of fortune for all of the characters. There is little cohesion in the opera before the second scene of the second act, thus the first three scenes (of six) are episodic and only one, Act 2 Scene 1, comes off well and it is utterly grim. The first act also tries far too hard to sound “Ukrainian”, becoming a parody of itself. What salvages at least the first scene is Andrej (who was not a character in the original story and was added at the request of Tchaikovsky himself). I disagree with some writers who claim that as with Eugene Onegin Tchaikovsky focuses too much on his heroine in this opera to the detriment of the male characters. If anything I would claim that Marija suffers miserably from having terribly plodding music until the third act. Much of the richness of the score goes to the male singers, particularly Andrej, although Mazeppa himself has a wonderful scene in act 2 scene 2 which is probably the heart of the opera and Kochubey has two wonderful scenes in act 2 including a prayer with the minor tenor Iskra. In the original version of the opera Marija commits suicide in front of a large crowd, which I’m tempted to make a case for being a better ending because of how horrible she is. Like Mara in Brankovics Gyorgy, her terrible choice in a lover (her godfather of all people) brings about the death or otherwise misery of everyone around her. Far from being a victim of fate, Marija’s one free choice in the opera acts as an “original sin” mechanism and she becomes a catalyst of destruction. There are also several ways in which the opera can be interpreted as homocentric, for example the double execution sequence between tenor/baritone and chorus which has hints of a persecution execution and the end of the opera itself with Marija in a faux-maternal (and de-sexualized) role, cradling the dying Andrej and singing a lullaby to him. The fact that she is rejected by Mazeppa because of her mental illness and that he has cruelly rendered his rival to her (Andrej) mortally wounded just before this moment lends weight to this. The music is another story. The first act does not equal the second and luckily the opera builds on itself like a Verdi opera rather than grow introverted. I have already complained about the first act (the best of the music here belongs to Andrej who for me at least seems to be the object of Tchaikovsky’s musical affection in the first and third acts) but the second and third to some extent make up for these shortcomings. The execution scene is a dramatic tour de force unrivalled by anything before it in the opera, but the quality of the choral writing here also gives the impression that it was written at a different time and place and even by a different composer than the choral numbers in act one. The third act, on the other hand, is a gem from start to finish although the entr’acte may come off as a bit too Tsarist. The worst thing about the opera, however, he Marija. She is not Tatiana, or Joan, or Iolanta. Even Lisa has the excuse of being for the most part an innocent victim. What is more, and unlike all of his other heroines, Tchaikovsky robs Marija of both her strength and her sexuality. Alas it must be a B.