'Mazeppa' deserves the West's attention Review: Tchaikovsky's historical opera is little known outside the East, and the Kirov production at the Met shows why that's a shame.

May 04, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

NEW YORK -- The Kirov Opera's production of Tchaikovsky's "Mazeppa" Friday evening -- the third of four Russian operas presented by the St. Petersburg company in its three-week residence at the Metropolitan Opera -- raised some questions about the standard operatic repertory in the West.

We Westerners pride ourselves on our taste, cultivation and sophistication. But we listen season after season to the same "Bohemes," "Traviatas" and "Dutchmen" -- some of them masterpieces, some not -- and, for the most part, are utterly unfamiliar with an opera as great as "Mazeppa."

"Mazeppa," however, is a favorite in the countries that once made up the Soviet Union. It is a historical opera about an uprising in Ukraine, led by the legendary Cossack chieftain Mazeppa, in the early 18th century against the growing sovereignty of Russia in the time of Peter the Great. The failure of Mazeppa's rebellion was a watershed in the history of Eastern Europe, leading as it did to Russia's becoming an empire instead of a nation.

Tchaikovsky and his librettist, V. P. Burenin, treat the story with a mix of historical accuracy, human realism and theatrical grandeur appropriate to the subject. The composer wrote some of his best stuff for "Mazeppa" -- music as great as anything in his last three symphonies. But it also contains some of his most intimate and affecting music. Tchaikovsky presents a May-December love story quite as powerfully as Verdi does in "Otello."

How one interprets the character of Mazeppa depends as much on geography as politics. To the Ukrainians and Poles and to such liberal 19th-century Western Romantics as Byron, Liszt and Delacroix, he was a hero fighting against tyranny. For Russians such as Tchaikovsky and Alexander Pushkin, upon whose poem, "Poltava," the composer based his opera, the Cossack chieftain was more likely to be viewed as a villain. But in Tchaikovsky's depiction of Mazeppa's love for Maria -- which brings about his destruction and that of everything he loves -- the composer wrote a tragic opera whose historical and personal dimensions cast a shadow almost as large as those of Verdi's "Aida" and Wagner's "Ring" operas.

"Mazeppa's" sweeping whole is made up of exquisitely wrought parts.

The composer's expression of the feelings between the 70-year-old protagonist and the much younger Maria is as moving and as psychologically authentic as any account this listener knows of the love that sometimes springs up between people of widely disparate ages. The portraits of Maria's parents, Kochubey and Lyubov, are drawn with down-to-the-bone sympathy and understanding. The baritone-tenor duet between Kochubey and his ally, Iskra, before Mazeppa executes them, is haunting. And the final scene, as Maria, now crazed by grief, sings a lullaby to the dying Andrei, her childhood lover, is as harrowing in its beauty as the penultimate scene in Shakespeare's "King Lear," in which Lear walks on stage with Cordelia dead in his arms.

This impressive opera was done justice by the alert, detailed and impassioned conducting of Kirov artistic director Valery Gergiev and the singing of his chorus and soloists.

As the Kirov's Russian opera festival progresses, it is fascinating to watch (and, of course, listen to) the way its singers transform themselves from role to role. Baritone Nikolai Putilin, so poignant the hero of Borodin's "Prince Igor," was equally affecting as the ruthless, but surprisingly sympathetic, Mazeppa. Basso Vladimir Vaneev, the imposing and invulnerable Khan in "Igor," was almost unrecognizable (except for the quality of his voice) as the doomed Kochubey.

As Maria, soprano Olga Guryakova sang passionately but often pushed her voice too hard. Mezzo-soprano Lyudmilla Shemchuk sang the part of her mother, Lyubov, powerfully, if without the control and attention to nuance displayed by Larissa Diadkova on Gergiev's recording of the opera for the Philips label.

In smaller roles, tenor Yuri Marusin (Andrei), basso Viacheslav Lukhanin (Orlik), tenor Leonid Zakhozhaev (Iskra) and tenor Nikolai Gassiev (a drunken Cossack) acquitted themselves admirably.

The company's sets and costumes, designed earlier in this century by Alexander Konstantinovsky and re-created by Vyacheslav Okunev, were so unobtrusive that listeners could not help but be immersed in "Mazeppa's" emotional depths and relentless historical currents.

Pub Date: 5/04/98

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