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Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893)
Mazeppa, opera in 3 acts, libretto by Viktor Burenin (1884) [169.00]
Mazeppa Nikolai Putilin
Kochubey Sergei Alesashkin
Lyubov Larissa Diadkova
Mariya Irina Loskutova
Andrey Viktor Lutsiuk
Orlik Viacheslav Luhanin
Kirov Opera Orchestra, Chorus, and Ballet/Valey Gergiev
Recorded at the Mariinsky Theater, St. Petersburg, Russia, 1996
Video direction, Brian Large. Stage Producer, Irina Molostova
Booklet in English, Français, Deutsch. Synopsis, no texts. Photos of the staging.
Originally recorded in two channel stereo, DRSS reprocessed for surround sound.
Subtitles: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Chinese. Menus in English.
DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. NTSC anamorphic 16:9 region 0 [all-regions]
No PAL version available. DVD [format 9]
PHILIPS EUROARTS 074 194-9 [174.00]
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Comparison recordings:
Neeme Järvi, Gorchakova, Stockholm Opera Chorus, Gothenberg SO DG 439 906-2
Vassily Nebolsin, Pokrovskaya, Bolshoi Theater Melodiya (3) LP D014757

My first experience with Mazeppa was a student production of one scene by the University of Southern California music school. It was the hit of the season and everybody wondered about this Tchaikovsky opera, but there was no recording available in any medium, so we were left unable to follow up on our interest. After years of searching I found a copy of the Melodiya recording on LP, but the sound was bad monophonic and the lack of the text prevented me from developing a serious interest.

One cannot discuss a performance of this particular opera without justifying the opera itself. For various reasons, and with the occasional exception of Yevgeny Onyegin, all Tchaikovsky’s operas are counted as failures both musically and dramatically. Not having the typical prejudices of most opera critics, and most particularly not worshipping at the shrines of the soprano cult, I find it difficult to understand why this opera is not, along with Pikovaya Dama, counted among the finest. The story is from an epic poem by Pushkin, "Poltava" set in the 1680s and about the seemingly endless wars involving Poland, Sweden, the Cossacks, and Russia. The libretto by Viktor Burenin was commissioned by the Tsar probably as a patriotic pageant to demonstrate how futile and terrible are opposition to the authority of the Tsar. It’s a good libretto even in translation; one is touched by the dramatic irony when, immediately following the dungeon scene, Mariya and Mazeppa sing repeatedly of what "torture" is absence of the beloved; and in the final scene, the dying Andrey implores Mariya to "wake up" from her madness as she sings to him to him to "go to sleep"—a lullaby. Act II Scene 2 where Mazeppa tricks Mariya into consenting to the death of her father is masterfully done, as is the following scene where Mariya’s mother is able to make plain to her daughter the horror of what is to come, and Mariya’s acceptance of her guilt begins to unravel her sanity. It must be noted that, although it could not be spoken on stage in 1884, like Brunnhilde at the beginning of Götterdämmerung, Mariya was already pregnant at the beginning of this opera. That is why she can no longer engage in the ritual flower dances of the virginal maidens.

Ivan Stepanovich Mazeppa (1644-1709) was the appointed governor (Hetman) of the Russian province of Ukraine, who intrigued with the Swedes to secure independence for his people and the Ukrainian throne for himself. He joined the Swedes against Peter the Great at the Battle of Poltava, but the Russians were totally victorious and Mazeppa fled to Moldavia and death. Perhaps it is difficult for modern Westerners to identify with these characters as they switch their loyalties among the ruling powers so easily as the fortunes of war and the desire for survival keep changing the stakes. In the midst of this, the barely teen-aged Mariya Kochubey falls into an Othello/Desdemona-like affair with the elderly Mazeppa, so we know right off no good can come of this. The characters bemoan fate and their inescapable destiny even as they make freely, one by one, the choices that lead them to their fall. The gradual dramatic progression as we move from what should be a happy betrothal to universal disgrace, death and destruction is brilliantly underscored by the music. Right up to the end of act II, I would be ready to insist that this is one of the greatest operas ever written. Act III opens with a terrific Tchaikovsky tone poem describing the battle of Poltava complete with his usual generous quotations from Russian hymns, and a full marching band playing on stage.

In this DVD, singing and acting are exceptional in every role. The staging is grand and realistic with hundreds of costumed singing extras on stage as required. The dancing in the party scene is everything you could hope for with wild leaps, spins and jumps. The audience is very well behaved with applause only after the ends of the acts, and only a very occasional discreet cough. Costumes, lighting, and video direction are superb. One particularly brilliant effect occurs right at the end of Act II when Kochubey is beheaded off stage left. As we hear the axe fall, a red spotlight suddenly comes on from the left as though the blood of the martyrs had erupted in flames from their bodies. As the red light strikes Mariya, frozen with horror at having watched as her father is killed, her horrific grimace turns suddenly to a wild grin as her mind snaps and she falls to the ground in hysterical laughter. We are probably also to infer that the shock has caused her to miscarry her unborn child, therefore at that single moment she has, in her eyes, and in the eyes of the Church, become a double murderess. It took me ten minutes to get my emotions under control before I could go on with the opera.

The last scene of Act III opens with one of those incredible concatenations of coincidence which Iris Murdoch employed at the end of her novels to get every principal character into one room. The opera then becomes a sung dramatic dialogue with the orchestra providing background support. In this recording the emphasis is more on the words of the drama, hence there is little full voice singing in contrast to the other recordings. Mazeppa and Andre fight, Andre is shot, Mariya in white robes enters caressing a bouquet of flowers at her breast and singing to it as to a child. Mazeppa tries to reach out to her, but in her madness she does not recognize him, and he flees without her. Andre revives long enough to say goodbye, but she does not hear him, continuing to sing her lullaby to her flower bouquet as the curtain falls.

This is the first time I’ve had a chance to watch Gergiev conducting. The charisma of the man, the brooding air of intense male power, is utterly overwhelming! In his decision to become a great conductor, the world lost a very great actor.

Järvi’s timings are almost identical to Gergiev’s, 167 as opposed to 169 minutes (the DVD includes 5 minutes of curtain calls and credits). Järvi’s Mazeppa, Sergei Lieferkus, is a magnificent artist, however I prefer Nicolai Putilin. One example of Putilin’s artistry is at those times when Mazeppa describes himself as an old man, he will introduce into his declamation the merest amount of waver to suggest age, yet without in any way afflicting the musicality of his tone or his diction. Larissa Diadkova plays Lyubov, Mariya’s mother, in both Järvi’s and Gergiev’s recordings, but she is such a fine actress that seeing as well as hearing her performance greatly enhances one’s appreciation. Viacheslav Luhanin as Orlik in the Gergiev production has little to sing, but his stage manner is so menacing and sinister that he manages to steal every scene he is in, and in this production it is he, not Mazeppa, who shoots Andrey. Gorchakova. Järvi’s Mariya, has a renowned voice but Irina Loskutova is singing in a real stage production, singing for the audience not just for the microphone, and the result is that her interpretation is much more dramatic. The same is true of the tenors; in Gergiev’s stage production, Viktor Lutsiuk makes a valid attempt to sound at least a little bit like he really is dying when he is supposed to be, yet never loses his control or beauty of tone, whereas in the studio production, Järvi’s tenor Sergei Larin understandably tends to strive for a beautiful, forward sound at all times. In short, the Gergiev has an advantage over the studio productions just because it is a live production.

The stereo sound is very clear and wide ranged, only slightly compressed, and effectively presents well the brilliant orchestral interludes, during which we look very closely at the orchestra players. It is remarkable that six years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, rampant individualism has manifested as the orchestral players display a variety of styles in hair and dress — and play beautifully in spite of having a camera in their face.

Paul Shoemaker

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