Edinburgh International Festival – Mazeppa


Mazeppa – Wojtek Drabowicz
Kochubey – Anatoli Kotscherga
Lyubov – Marianna Tarasova
Maria – Anna Samuil
Andrey – Mikhail Agafonov
Orlik – Marek Gasztecki
Iskra – Ian Caley
Drunken Cossack – Eberhard Francesco

Vasil Maslo & Igor Goriatchkine (dancers)

Chorus & Orchestra of Opéra National de Lyon
Kirill Petrenko

Peter Stein – Director
Georges Gagneré – Assistant director
Ferdinand Wögerbauer – Set designer
Anna Maria Heinreich – Costume designer
Duane Schuler – Lghting designer
Japhy Weiderman – Assistant lighting designer
Heinz Wanitschek – Choreographer

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 22 August, 2006
Venue: Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Nicolson Street, Edinburgh

Just like the proverbial omnibus (well, not quite that many), you wait ages for a production of Tchaikovsky’s ‘other’ Pushkin opera (after “Eugene Onegin” and “The Queen of Spades”), “Mazeppa”, then two come along at once. If Welsh National Opera’s recent production was as good as this Lyon import by Peter Stein then we have been well blessed.

Reporting from the opening night of Stein’s “Mazeppa” at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, with the acclamation and applause from a normally more reserved Edinburgh audience still ringing in my ears, it is a delight to report on a thrilling night at the opera. The first of the three Pushkin/Tchaikovsky operas to be staged in Lyon by Stein and conductor Kirill Petrenko, Stein is content to leave the action in the time it is set, the early 18th- century with Tsar Peter the Great a potent, if not present, force, while the future of Ukraine hung in the balance.

Pushkin’s poem on which Tchaikovsky’s salvaged libretto was based (on hearing that Karl Davydov had decided not to proceed with setting Victor Burenin’s original libretto) was actually titled after the battle that secured the Ukraine for the Tsar, Poltava, and, in the main, the focus is on not the titular character, but Maria, the young woman Mazeppa loves and for whom she leaves her family.

With foreshadowing of “The Nutcracker” in the Cossack dances, near the beginning, to more portentous string sweeps akin to the ‘Pathétique’, there are plenty of Tchaikovsky hallmarks to grab hold of, and indeed the plotting might seem familiar too. Mazeppa, in his second act aria, “Oh, Maria, Maria” emulates Prince Gremin in the earlier ‘Onegin’ singing of how the love of young woman can re-energise an older man, and the plangent wind cadences are made of the same stuff of Gremin’s more famous aria.

In a curious way, this is the antithesis of Tatyana in ‘Onegin’. Maria’s love is reciprocated by the older man in the first act and her choice is to go with him. It’s just as well Tatyana didn’t go with Onegin, or she may have ended up quite mad as Maria does; Mazeppa having her father tortured and then executed for branding him a traitor to the Tsar (unfortunately Kochubey is correct, but Peter the Great sides with Mazeppa, until realising he has to defeat him in battle). Only when Maria’s mother, Lyubov, risks her own life to find Maria in Mazeppa’s castle does Maria discover what is going on, but the two are too late to stop the execution.

Act Two starts with a “Fidelio”–like dungeon scene, Kochubey in chains awaiting further torture by Mazeppa’s henchman, but with rescue (unlike Florestan’s) not at hand. Meanwhile, in Stein’s production the final act, on the snowy steppes, has resonance with ‘Onegin’ again. There, Onegin shoots Lensky, and here Mazeppa shoots Maria’s childhood sweetheart Andrey. What follows is the tragic end: Mazeppa rejects mad Maria who is left amidst the snow, with Andrey in her arms, not recognising him.

What seems, at the start, a rather unforgiving set – a parched, cracked steppes rising and falling so that those in the stalls could probably not have seen the girls arriving as if by boat, before they climb up the main incline to be seen at the top to tell of fortunes – turns out to be quite adaptable. The claustrophobic second scene, where Kochubey and his wife plot to tell the Tsar of Mazeppa’s revolutionary plans is squashed into a long-receding corridor, heightened by a false perspective of walls bestrewn with rugs and tapestries. Mazeppa’s dungeon is frighteningly deep, Orlik and the executioners climbing down precipitous steps to Kochubey, while Mazeppa’s great soliloquy is given on a terrace overlooking the steppes (now flat), with stars twinkling in the sky, shining out of what looks like another Russian rug. The battle was simply represented by a projected painting of it.

For those seeking traditional opera there would be nothing to disappoint – there was even a pair of horses for Mazeppa and Orlik to use in both the execution scene and the final, desolate act. At the beginning of that act there seemed far more than the assembled chorus running across the stage as Mazeppa’s fleeing troops.

But this was not all painted back-cloths and stand-and-deliver; there was detailed characterisation and a director’s care at understanding the inner life of the characters. One could believe how Maria fell for Mazeppa; you could empathise with Kochubey and Lyubov’s utter distress at losing their daughter and how it caused its unbridgeable break between them and their one-time friend Mazeppa. What is less easy to forgive is Mazeppa’s rejection of mad Maria; and where one might have hankered for a traditional ending where he gets his comeuppance (more than being defeated in battle, that is), he escapes and it is Maria (rocking dead Andrey) that the curtain closes on. Presumably, just as in “Eugene Onegin”, tradition would have it that the title reflected the main male character, even though Tchaikovsky concentrated again on the female protagonist.

Stein’s production was aided and abetted by some great conducting by Kirill Petrenko and suitably spirited response from the Opéra de Lyon orchestra. The principals were all very good, even if Anna Samuil’s Maria had a typically Slavic wide vibrato. If Anatoli Kotscherga received the greatest cheer, even over Wojtek Drabowicz, perhaps that was more in sympathy with his character. Mikhail Agafonov was also very affecting as Andrey.One hopes, even with Brian McMaster’s departure from the Edinburgh International Festival this year, that this is not Peter Stein’s swan-song too. Britain has been very lucky in seeing his operatic productions (of the 11 listed – including Mazeppa – six have been seen here (four with Welsh National Opera, two at Edinburgh). Although Lyon is not difficult to get to, perhaps we will have sight of his up-coming “Eugene Onegin” and “The Queen of Spades”.

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