Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 50 minutes.
This review is of the 1996 production at the Mariinsky Theatre conducted by Valery Gergiev. I was in the mood for some Tchaikovsky and OperaScribe had long ago suggested I review this performance as my earlier review is of an Italian-language performance from the 1950s.
SETTING: Russia, 1704-1709. The basic premise is that the 60-something Mazeppa (baritone) defiles his own goddaughter, one Marija (soprano), daughter of the boyar Kocubej (bass-baritone). He does marry her first, but the marriage is somewhat illicit. In any case, Kocubej decides to reveal to Tsar Peter the Great a plot Mazeppa told him prior to being rejected as son-in-law material in which he planned an alliance with Sweden to take western Russia from Moscow. Ultimately Mazeppa has his father-in-law executed for treason, which causes Marija to go insane. For some reason Tchaikovsky himself added a character, Andrej (tenor), who acts as a sort of tragic romantic foil, and is far more intriguing than the other characters.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: (61 minutes)
Scene 1: The estate of Kocubej.
15: Prostí, prostí, Maríya The prelude has a random wondering-ness to it. It never fully develops and just consists of various points of lyricism (notice a melody taken up by the clarinet and flute) and menace (a single interesting outburst around four minutes in). It is also rather long. Finally, Peasant girls come on at their work in an oddly somber number which takes up the melody earlier heard in the clarinet and flute. It sounds incredible sad. Marija, the daughter of Kocubej, arrives and greets them but they are quickly off and she is left alone. Her remarks which follow are of great dramatic consequence, as they reveal her romantic issues (in love with her own godfather!) but musically it is shockingly uninteresting. Thankfully, Tchaikovsky himself came up with a solution to the tedium of the work by insisting on the insertion of a tenor, this is the Cossack Andrej, a figure who seems to have obviously aroused (I am being delicate) something in Tchaikovsky as he provides the opera with the first music in it which can be taken seriously *. Although Andrej has some very nice bits here, the music for the soprano drags. If there were ever an example of gay male bias in opera, the remarkably divergent quality in the tenor and soprano respective music here is perhaps the most striking in history as Tchaikovsky accomplishes the impossible: a number that is half-deathly boring, half-remarkable.
26: Hopak Mazeppa is given a baroque-sounding entrance. The people greet him and as an entertainment a rather dull hopak is performed *. At the end of this we are already half-way through the act and although a lot has happened, the music has been very sub-par, although I will admit that the act does not feel as long as it is.
33: V nyóm lyubóv’ prokhódit Mazeppa and Kocubej discuss a marriage proposal to Marija (Kocubej is against it as he is her godfather, so it would be like Marija marrying a blood relative). Mazeppa tries to explain himself in an okay aria * in which he goes over a lot about getting a canonical dispensation but Kocubej is still disgusted with the idea of off-loading his daughter on a man who is even older than he is!
38: Stárec bezúmnïy, skazí The scene ends with a bomb-out as Kocubej condemns Mazeppa for proposing what would be considered the religious equivalent of incest. Musically the orchestral provides only just the level of needed angst needed to convey what is happening on stage, and to some extent it is below what is needed *. Finally Marija decides to make the fatal choice: she will marry Mazeppa against the wishes of her father. Mazeppa brings on his troops who then kidnap Marija and hold the others up so they can do nothing to stop Mazeppa. The scene somewhat randomly ends at this point.
Scene 2: A room in the house of Kocubej, around a month later.
46: Ne grozá nebesá króyet túceyu A sad number (entirely female) starts off the next scene as the chorus and Ljubov, the mother of Marija, reacts with her maids to the loss of her daughter and bemoans her defilement at the hands of her own godfather *. Kocubej goes over a plot Mazeppa had clued him in on before the conflict over Marija about handing over western Russia to Sweden. He needs for someone to alert the Tsar.
54: Ya éto znáyu Andrej volunteers, feeling that his life is over now that Marija has sold herself to Mazeppa *.
58: V rukákh moskóvskikh Finally, the act ends on something good * as Andrej and Ljubov vocally compete for domination as they all swear vengeance on Mazeppa.
ACT 2: (69 minutes)
Scene 1: A dungeon in the palace of Mazeppa.
4: Tak vot nagráda za donós Tchaikovsky provides us with another weird and musically random prelude. Kocubej has been taken prisoner by Mazeppa, the Tsar having believed the plot to be fictitious and concocted by Kocubej out of revenge. He reacts to all of this in utter despair *.
9: Doprós ne kóncen Things get more interesting with the arrival of the prison warden Orlik ** who interrogates Kocubej because he is on a lark about some buried treasure or such whatnot.
11: Tak, ne osiblis There actually is no treasure: Kocubej replies in the most noble way *** that he has nothing now, not even his honour which has been destroyed two-fold by Mazeppa: his name has been destroyed through false confession and his honour has been violated in the de-flowerment of his daughter. Eventually Orlik orders that the torture be continued.
Scene 2: A room in the palace.
26: O, Maríya, Maríya! Mazeppa contemplates what he is going to do and the consequences there of. He must execute Kocubej, but the shock of having her father killed by her husband will certainly mentally damage Marija. Orlik comes on and reports on Kocubej. Left alone again, he reflects on what will certainly happen to his wife **.
35: Moy drug, nespravedlíva tï? Tchaikovsky permits the return of his prima donna to some rather sinister entrance music and a long ornery recitative. In their love duet which follows, the most interesting feature goes to Mazeppa. As usual with Tchaikovsky, the orchestra ends up tell us more about what is happening than Marija actually says, however, this is strangely balanced with some rather lovely admissions of love from Mazeppa ** which go into arioso. But then we return to Marija, more recite, then Mazeppa again with more arioso.
40: O, mílïy moy There is one brief moment in which Marija does get to do something energetic for once as she describes how she wants Mazeppa to take power and become king, but it really doesn’t last long *. He continues to reassure her of his love, then departs.
47: Maríya, doc’ moyá! Left alone, Marija gives us another one of her boring passages but things heat up when her mother shows up and pleads with her to help her save Kocubej **. Marija realizes what Mazeppa is about to do and briefly passes out. Ljubov slaps her awake and the two women run off in an attempt to stop the execution.
Scene 3: The Scaffold.
55: Skóro li? Finally, Tchaikovsky hits the jackpot ***: the contrast between the chorus in utter terror with their irritation from the song of the drunken tenor Cossack is just brilliant. Mazeppa comes on to a striking march to witness the executions.
63: Grekhóv vsesíl’ nïy iskupítel’ Kocubej is brought on with fellow conspirator Iskra. A prayer ***, first from Kocubej then as a duet with Iskra follows which has the nobility and delicacy of the Pavane by Delibes (it also appears to quote it!). Eventually it gives way to terror.
66: Vnemlí molítve pokayán’ya The prayer is taken up by the chorus magnificently *** in near a cappella (one can hear a celestial harp even at the most pianissimo moment). The two men are led away to be executed. The axes fall just as Ljubov and Marija come on. The older woman immediately faints, Marija goes mad apparently, although if anyone actually cares that she has is beyond me.
ACT 3: The ruins of the Kocubej estate, sometime later. (38 minutes)
0: Again, Tchaikovsky gives us a five minute prelude starting out in brassy orneriness, but this one is meant specifically as programme music, depicting as it does the Battle of Poltava ** and eventually a singular grand melody breaks out and dominates the proceedings. An on-stage brass band blasts everything out of the water.
5: V boyú krovávom Andrej gives us a terrifying report on the battle ***. His thoughts eventually turn to Marija in a sweeping romantic display. Eventually he hears horses coming up and he hides.
15: Stoy, Orlik Mazeppa arrives with Orlik ** and Andrej eventually jumps him but gets shot by Orlik and is left for dead (but he does not die so quickly).
22: Akh, tíse, tíse, tíse, drug! Instead Tchaikovsky decides to leave him alive for around a quarter of an hour as Marija shows up to Dawn over the Moscow River and Mazeppa realizes that her brain is fried like that egg on crack or something. This borders on La Jolie fille de Perthe territory * although the orchestra at least sustains the scene effectively enough. He flees with Orlik after she explains that her mother is apparently playing a horrible trick on her making her think her husband has had her father executed in cold blood.
31: Pridí v sebyá The final scene is depressing to say the least. Marija discovers the body of the half-dead Andrej. At first she is frightened as she seems to be regaining some sense but then she loses it again and ends up cradling him in her arms and sings him a morbid lullaby as he dies but not before he tragically pleads with her to help him ***, but to no avail, he dies. She is so spaced out that nothing else happens in the opera as she stares mindlessly, if prettily, into the darkness.
Mazeppa is a work of extremes: the extremely spectacular and the extremely repugnant. Although parts of it are nothing short of remarkable, so much more of it is frankly repulsive. On the credit side is the amazing second act with its choral execution scene, possibly the best dramatic music Tchaikovsky ever wrote, and the prison scene earlier in the act with the nobility of Kocubej sustaining for the duration of his horrific interview with Orlik. Mazeppa himself is successfully characterized even if he really isn’t on stage very much (only around an hour actually in an opera that is almost three hours!). The character who seems to have most inspired Tchaikovsky, however, is the tenor role of Andrej, perhaps because he suggested including him as he was not part of the original concept for the opera. The tenor roles in general (there are three) are a major highlight as they display the ability of the composer to work effectively with this specific vocal type to create three uniquely poignant roles of variant size. Another plus is that the opera moves very swiftly in spite of its near massive running time (it is nearly three hours long but feels more like two hours), even if some of the scene transitions do not make obvious dramatic sense. On the minus there are two fatal flaws which prove almost lethal. One, the first act is as sterile as a mule and as inert and ornery as an encounter with a herd of alpacas; in many ways it is an insult to the discipline of music itself. Two, if Tatiana was the best of the Tchaikovsky heroines (or characters for that matter), Marija is the worst. There is nothing remotely redeemable about her, dramatically or musically. Her music is almost uniformly boring, bland, and reflects the tendency in Tchaikovsky to have his orchestra tell us, rather than his vocalists show us, what is occurring on stage. The overall impression is that the composer himself was just totally disinterested in his soprano, because as a human being she is totally unlikeable, even after she goes insane when she then becomes obnoxious (and cliched). She is a pathetic excuse of a woman. Her desires and motivations are both sickening and deadly, and yet they, more so than those of the more musically interesting male characters, actually controls what occurs in the opera. The men are depicted so well (at least musically, dramatically they still come off mostly as stage puppets lacking enough development), their passions and sexual desire so obviously conveyed by the orchestra and in the vocal lines, that it must come off as odd that the female lead is so consistently a lame duck role. I rather wished Tchaikovsky had kept in his original ending, in which Marija commits suicide, just because I find her so despicable the thought of her remaining alive at the end is nauseating. It has been hard to not repeat an adjective in describing her. So what to do about a letter grade here? The prima donna is below gamma level, and the other characters really don’t get enough stage time to become fleshed out human beings even if they are musically convincing (and some, like Mazeppa, Kocubej, and Andrej, magnificently so). The first act is a gamma, but the second act is alpha plus territory and the third, even if not the same level as the one immediately before it, certainly merits a beta at the very least if not an alpha. So a B it is then.