Completed in 1883, Mazepa dramatizes the life of the ruthless and charismatic 17th-century Cossack commander Mazepa.
He attempted to liberate Ukraine from Tsar Peter the Great of Russia, but not without first having fallen in love with his goddaughter, Mariya, turning her powerful, rich family against him.
In doing so he becomes responsible for the torture and death of her father Kochubei for treason.
Following the defeat of the Swedes (with whom he has allied in his liberation plans) at the disastrous Battle of Poltava, he flees, abandoning Mariya, who has gone mad, amidst the wreckage of her former family home. The story inspired Tchaikovsky to write some of his most penetrating and forward-looking music: glorious lyrical melodies, thoughtful characterisations, and spectacular orchestral and choral set-pieces.
Lacking the economic resources to stage a behemoth epic set in the 1690’s, as envisaged by the composer and as realised this year at the New York Met and in previous productions in London, directors Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser have set this production in the 1990s to draw attention to contemporary political parallels in former satellites of the Soviet Union and their dilemma whether their futures lie looking East or to the West.
This not only works but also gives the audience a more direct emotional contact with the performers, rather than detaching them by the lavish spectacle of a traditional production. But its theme is also a reflection on power and contemporary realpolitik: the strong do what they can whilst the weak suffer, as they must. It was ever thus.
The star of the evening, in my view, is Moscow-born Tatiana Monogarova as Mariya, Mazepa’s doomed goddaughter and wife. She moved with grace and abandon on stage, and her singing is absolutely marvellous, beautifully controlled and unstrained, sustained passionately and impressively throughout the three-and-a-half-hour performance. She was mesmerizing during the final mad scene, perhaps the most inspired moment in all of Tchaikovsky’s operas. She sings a hauntingly angelic lullaby with a fragile, infinitely sad tone, in the ruins of her father’s estate, but in her distraction never really recognises the dying, heartbroken Andrei, who has loved her unrequitedly since childhood.
Top honours were shared, however, with Marianna Tarasova from St Petersburg, as Lyubov, who was pretty close to stunning. She also sang beautifully, particularly The Mother’s Lament in Act 1, and with intensity, and was appropriately dramatic and emotional, without going over the top.
Of the males Robert Hayward in the title role demonstrated much of the necessary authority, as an embryonic Stalin, with remarkably clear vocal production. However his heartfelt aria in Act II, which shows him truly to be in love with Mariya and is pivotal to character and plot development, demands a complete change of tessitura and was masterly accomplished. Gidon Sachs as Kochubei, Mariya’s father is a big-hearted artist and an accomplished actor, singing with round dark tones of great power and his portrayal is commanding but ultimately poignant and intimately humane, as he confronts his own execution.
If there was a weak link, it was for me, if not the rest of the audience, the American Hugh Smith in the role of Andrei, the boy-next-door carrying a torch for Mariya. In his aria in Act I declaring his love, and also in the ensembles, he sounded as if he was trying unnecessarily hard to project his voice, with the result that it sounded strained and decidedly uncomfortable to this ear. Fortunately he handled his aria at the end of Act III with more sympathy possibly because, having been shot by Mazepa it was required to be delivered, as he lay dying, from the floor.
Conductor Alexander Polianichko inspired a fiery, impassioned, authoritative and sonorous performance from the orchestra and the work showcased the WNO chorus, who were on splendid and robust form both vocally and dramatically, singing in excellent Russian, as were the rest of the international cast.
Set Designer Christian Fenouillat realised the directors’ intentions cleverly, with simple and effective sets, not least the division of the stage at the execution scene at the end of Act II. Here the crowd watch from a works cafeteria as the event unfolds on television, evoking the Romanian annual film showing of the Ceascescu’s end. On the one side a raucous rabble is entertained by the presence of a bawdy drunk, played by Philip Lloyd Holton, whilst on the other, our attention is focussed on Kochubei and Iskra, spot-lit as they stand alone, nobly contemplating death and union with God.
This opera is performed comparatively rarely and this WNO production a thoughtful updating rather than a reinterpretation – does it great justice: take the opportunity to see it if you can.