Tchaikowski: Mazepa, Welsh National Opera, New Theatre, Oxford, 1 July, 2006
Mazepa is the second and least performed of Tchaikowski’s three Pushkin-based operas. In this sensational new production for Welsh National Opera, directed by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, everything comes together to provide a night at the opera long to be savoured. Even the decision to bring the action forward to the present day, from the time of the battle of Poltava in 1709 adds relevance with present day struggles of the Ukraine to assert its independence from the competing threats and blandishments of Russia (of Peter the Great in the original) and of Europe (of Charles XII of Sweden)
Mazepa is Grand Opera with a Russian flavour, depicting the private relationships of its protagonists against the background of the historical events in which they are caught up. After an extended overture, the three acts display three scenes from Pushkin’s narrative poem Poltava. In the first, Mariya, daughter of Ukrainian leader, Kochubei, chooses to follow the much older Cossack commander Mazepa, abandoning her family and her admirer Andrei. In revenge her father denounces Mazepa’s political ambitions to Russia but is not believed. In Act II, Mazepa has imprisoned and tortured Kochubei, which Mariya only discovers at her father’s execution. Act III depicts the aftermath of the battle of Poltava. Mazepa, now a fugitive, encounters Andrei and shoots him among the ruins of the family home. A deranged Mariya appears and Andrei dies in her arms in a deeply poignant finale.
The structure of the opera and the score are fascinating and intriguing. Much of it is written in a percussive style that almost foreshadows Shostakovich, but occasionally breaking into lyrical passages reminiscent of Eugene Onegin and the bombastic march depicting the battle of Poltava. At the same time, can one not detect some flavour of verismo opera in the treatment of the characters and the plot development? The staging enhanced this impression, with fairly basic sets and the execution scene being filmed and viewed on television by the chorus. The surtitles were excellent, with only a few anomalous references to Peter the Great, Charles XII and the Swedes.
The singing was superb throughout (down to Philip Lloyd Holtam as a drunken Cossack), the Russian sounded authentic though only the ladies were Russian. Robert Hayward, recently WNO’s alternative Dutchman, enhanced his reputation as did Gidon Saks (Daland in the same production) in the role of Kochubei. Tatiana Monogarova gave a touching portrayal of Mariya. But the outstanding performances, both with a ‘tingle-factor’ rarely met outside the great opera houses, came from the tenor Hugh Smith as Andrei and Marianna Tarasova as Mariya’s mother. Smith had a solidity of tone throughout his range, rare in tenors today – an appropriate winner of the Pavarotti Voice Competition, 1995. The conductor was Alexander Polianichko (who has previously conducted Hansel and Gretel for WNO). The orchestra, in top form, responded to his beat as if Russian born. He confirmed to me after the performance that the WNO orchestra was the most responsive he had encountered. He also commended the Oxford audience as being the only one that had awaited complete silence at the end before applauding.
5 July 2006