Mazeppa – Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky

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The Mazeppa Legend in European Romanticism

(1974), Hubert F. Babinski

Vulture, dove, and arrow are the metaphors used in Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky’s opera Mazeppa to describe three of the central characters. More than a love-triangle romance, this opera, adapted by Viktor Burenin and Tchaikovsky from the epic poem “Poltava” by the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, unfolds a history of political intrigue, revenge, May-December marriage, parental love, and madness.

Written directly after Tchaikovsky’s better known opera Eugene Onegin which was also inspired by a Pushkin work, Mazeppa, completed in 1883, centers on Ivan Mazeppa, a legendary but historically real Cossack hetman (leader) in the Russian Ukraine. Mazeppa (1640-1709) inspired poetry from Lord Byron and Victor Hugo, a painting by Eugene Delacroix, and a virtuoso etude by Franz Liszt not to mention less touted operas, choral works, and piano compositions by composers throughout Europe from Poland to Ireland. Although the Russians portray Ivan Mazeppa as a villain, the Ukrainian leader, who built churches and established libraries and educational institutions, was venerated by his countrymen as a patriot, statesman, and diplomat.

Infrequently performed outside of Russia, the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC is presenting the Kirov Opera production of Mazeppa under the baton of artistic and musical director Valery Gergiev.

As Act I opens, Maria, the metaphoric dove, greets girlfriends who want her to join them for an outing of games, songs, and fortune-telling. She declines because her parents are entertaining Mazeppa who she reveals in soliloquy is the old man who has bewitched her and with whom she is hopelessly in love. Andrey, another neighborhood friend appears in her garden, to confess his lifelong love for her while suspecting he is too late.

From this point, the first scene takes flight with Mazeppa asking Maria’s father Kochubey for his daughter’s hand. Kochubey, horrified, says no and observes that what Mazeppa asks is sinful since Maria is Mazeppa’s godchild. The two men backed up by their respective legions nearly come to blows except that Maria comes between them. Mazeppa composes himself and declares first that a lion should not fight with a lamb and that further he did not come like a vulture to plunder Kochubey’s treasure. Mazeppa asks Maria to choose between her father and himself. She runs off with the hetman who her parents now call the vulture. In scene 2, Kochubey and his friend plot revenge against Mazeppa who is secretly trying to make the Ukraine an independent state. Andrey volunteers he will fly like an arrow to tell Tsar Peter (later known as Peter, the Great) that Mazeppa is aligning forces with the Swedes to overthrow Russian control of the Ukraine.

Defining Act II are a cascade of reversals—a lie triumphing over truth, political power ravaging the hard won conquest of an old man’s love for a young woman, and the barbaric choice the young woman must make. In the first scene, Kochubey lands in Mazeppa’s dungeon beneath his castle, handed over by the Tsar who does not believe the hetman would betray Russia. In scene 2, Maria reproaches Mazeppa for his recent coolness toward her and says he no longer loves her. She reminds him that she has given up her family, friends, and religion for him. Mazeppa caught up in the struggle for Ukrainian independence reveals the secret plan to her. Then he toys with her asking, who is dearer, your father or husband? Maria unaware that her father is being tortured in the cellars of their home says, “I will do anything for you, but your question frightens me.” Mazeppa asks her forgiveness but then leaves her alone to wrestle with what he has said. In what almost seems to be a dream, Maria’s mother steals into the castle chambers to implore her daughter to save her father. Maria faints hearing the devastating news; her life and sanity begin to unravel. In Scene 3, the distraught daughter arrives at the execution too late to save her father.

Act III, comprising a single scene, returns vulture, arrow, and dove to Kochubey’s garden, now ruined. Andrey, who had not been allowed by Kochubey to inform the Tsar of Mazeppa’s betrayal, seeks solace in his childhood landscape. His quest on the battlefield for revenge against the hetman has been in vain. Disappointed by Swedish support and fleeing the Tsar’s army which defeated him at Poltava, Mazeppa takes cover in Kochubey’s garden only to be confronted by Andrey who defeats Mazeppa in a sword fight. However, Mazeppa produces a pistol and mortally wounds Andrey. Maria wanders into the garden and Mazeppa tries to reunite with her. Tormented by her father’s execution, she no longer recognizes her beloved husband. Mazeppa’s henchman Orlik persuades the old man to save himself from the encroaching army and they leave without Maria. Andrey stirs and pleads with Maria to show him her face. She serenades him with a lullaby as if he were a child needing to be calmed for sleep.

Mazeppa is a grand scale production with over 100 players on stage in some of the scenes. The costumes, ranging from peasant dress to royal court attire and formal military uniforms, are rich in color and brocade. The scenery projects majesty, with towering trees in Kochubey’s garden, high vaulted ceilings in the princely homes of Kochubey and Mazeppa, and soaring onion domed buildings seen in perspective outside Mazeppa’s castle.

Matching the massive power of this theatric landscape, the eight principal singers craft a thoroughly satisfying set of performances where every Russian word can be heard. Soprano Tatiana Pavlovskay as Maria stands out not only for her tour-de-force singing but also for a dramatic performance in which she evolves from a young passionate girl showering her husband with flowers to a tormented, insane daughter cradling an imaginary child in her executed father’s garden. Bass Vladimir Vaneev as the chained and tortured Kochubey delivers an outstanding performance as he defies henchman Orlik who demands to know where Kochubey’s valuables are hidden. Vaneev sings masterly, three treasures brought me joy—my honor, my daughter’s honor, and my holy vengeance, which I leave in the hand of God. The clear, strong voice of baritone Nikolai Putilin as Mazeppa conveys his ardent mature love for the too young Maria both when he asks for her hand in marriage and in his castle drawing room before Maria accuses him of no longer loving her.

Musically Tchaikovsky creates a collection of sweet and dark sounds that do not linger in memory. The grand dance scene with athletic Russian dancing suggests the folk tune “Volga Boatman’s Song.” Choral singing may be the strength of Tchaikovsky’s work in this opera. Without masterful artistic direction and an outstanding cast as seen at this Kennedy Center/Kirov Opera production, Mazeppa at nearly three hours would not fill an opera house like the Kennedy Center.

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