Tschaikowsky, Mazepa

For my second opera of the day, I took in Tschaikowsky’s lesser-performed opera Mazepa in the Mariinsky Theater (the main one, that is).  The performance met the high standards I expected.  The Mariinsky Ensemble cast was fine across the board, with particularly strong female voices this evening: Tatyana Pavlovskaya as Maria (Mazepa’s wife) and Lyubov Sokolova (as Lyubov Kochubey, Maria’s mother).  Aleksandr Morozov as Vasily Kochubey sounded a little tired, but soldiered on.  All of them knew how to act, and so could give dramatic performances.  They were assisted in this by a well-designed set revived from a 1950 production – realistically portrayed, but a clearly-painted set, which must not have been expensive (not much solid, mostly objects painted on canvas) but still accomplished everything a traditional staging would have required.  Young US-trained Russian Conductor Mikhail Agrest provided a dynamic reading from the pit.

Although the singer in the title role, Vladimir Vaneyev, did not sound like anything was wrong, he suddenly stood up and walked off the stage in the middle of the Second Act.  The orchestra stopped playing.  Everyone started looking confused at each other.  Then the curtain fell.  The announcement said they were experiencing “technical difficulties” and would take an unplanned intermission right at that point.  Forty minutes later, they gonged everyone back into the hall, the curtain went up, and someone else was singing Mazepa.  Go figure.  The new singer was better, although maybe this could be explained if Vaneyev was not feeling well.  However, that would merit an announcement that he was ill, not having “technical difficulties.”  We may never know.

Speaking of technical difficulties, the biggest problem with this performance was, surprisingly, Tschaikowsky.  The composition was of uneven quality – with some brilliant moments and some less so.  Since the performers were all acting well, and the conductor was keeping things moving, this was not a problem of poor interpretation or execution, but rather had to be the composition.  I am also not sure that Tschaikowsky ever understood action drama – he could certainly do psycho-drama (e.g., Yevgeny Onegin and Queen of Spades), but this was an action story even if Tschaikowsky himself rewrote the libretto to make it more psychological (or at least that was his intent – he was not so successful, since the character at the center of Tschaikowsky’s psycho-drama would need be Mazepa’s wife Maria and not the main character himself).  Despite the best acting efforts of the cast, the work remained too static.  The opera is also very Russian in nature, and Tschaikowsky’s music was perhaps too westernized.  I kept thinking throughout that it was a shame this story had not instead been set by a more authentic Russian composer.

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