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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mariinsky Operas Justify the Journey North

ST. PETERSBURG -- Just listen to this: "Now is a terrible time in our good-natured, somber Motherland. The population is gripped by uncertainty and restlessness. It's as if we are walking on the foothills of a volcano that could erupt at any moment. Everybody is in a feeble and decrepit condition. Change must come soon."

If it sounds familiar, that's not because you heard it from the mouth of Gennady Zyuganov. In the past, Tchaikovsky's music has been used in state broadcasts to signal that coups, conspiracies and other Soviet shenanigans were underway. But his collected letters -- the above was written from a lush, leafy Italian villa to his patron Nadezhda von Meck in 1882 -- have yet to provide material for the speech writers of those politicians now hoping to scare the electorate into rebuilding the U.S.S.R.

The peculiar sense of deja-vu that surrounds the composer's brief Italian correspondence as well as his opera, "Mazeppa," which he undertook soon afterwards, have more to do with the universality of Tchaikovsky's work and the erratic, unpredictable course of Russian history.

And it is exactly this unnerving, foreboding sense of contemporaneousness that is explored in the new production of "Mazeppa" at the Mariinsky Theater, one of five scintillating premieres at the theater that make a trip to St. Petersburg compulsory for all music-loving Muscovites this coming summer season.

"The libretto for Mazeppa had been written for another composer," said Irina Molostova, the producer of Mazeppa. "But Tchaikovsky was so concerned with what was going on in Russia at the time that he took it on himself, as a way to answer the situation. And the answers he found are still relevant today."

The 19th century episode that so troubled Tchaikovsky was the aftermath of the murder of Tsar Alexander II, who fell victim to a terrorist bomb in 1881. The composer responds to the turmoil and upheaval this caused with a classic anti-hero, one of only two characters in Tchaikovsky's entire oeuvre to deal with an actual historical character. Mazeppa was, in reality, a poet, a Ukrainian nobleman and a plotting, conniving traitor (or "separatist" as they are now known) who made a pact with King Charles of Sweden to establish Ukraine as an independent state.

In the opera, the libretto of which is modeled on the Pushkin poem "Poltava," we find him falling in love with a beautiful young woman named Maria, only to have his sneaky Swedish plans revealed to Peter the Great by her father, Kochubey. It all ends rather grimly with Mazeppa at the point of defeat at the battle of Poltava, Maria gone mad, her father executed and her ex-lover shot.

But more important than the melodramatic tint to the action is the atmosphere, suffused with cruelty, psychosis and instability. There is the same dynamism that we find today in contemporary Russia, that kind of grimy energy to be found here in everyday life. In the opera this dark prophetic sense is reflected in the charisma of the essentially evil Mazeppa and in the music, which accompanies his cruelty so beautifully. Watch out, in particular, for the devastating aria in Act II in which Mazeppa sings of his love to Maria, knowing he has just condemned her father to death.

Also remarkable is the night aria, sung at the end of the opera after Maria has gone mad.

"This night song," said Molostova, "Introduces the audience to forgiveness and demonstrates that regardless of how cruel life can be, there is still be some kind of hope."

The production itself is nothing less than a triumph. The process of making connections across a century of violent and unsettled Russian history is dealt with tactfully and subtly. Molostova's interpretation is firmly rooted in the grand operatic traditions of picturesque design, minimal dramatic trickery and a firm emphasis on musicianship. But as opera searches more and more fervently for shocking novelty -- a recent production of Verdi's "Nabucco" at Covent Garden in London featured singing Israeli soldiers and Palestinian terrorist baritones -- it is refreshing to discover that conventionality can sometimes be far more dazzling than innovation.

"It's the intonation more than anything else that makes a production contemporary," explained Molostova. "It's the particular dilemmas that we decide to point out to the audience and the questions and problems that we want to show on the stage."

Designer Vladimir Firer decks the stage in huge tapestries that seem to be coming apart at the seams, rather like the Russian empire that Mazeppa was hoping to tear asunder.

But where this production really excels is in the creation of spectacle and in the peerless manipulation of the chorus. So often at the Mariinsky, operatic crowd scenes don't really fill the space and, despite human resources far exceeding those at Western opera houses, the chorus look like a bunch of slightly nervous individuals loitering around. But Molostova builds each tableau meticulously, with all the painstaking detail of a Jaques Louis David painting. The throngs of singers that pour into each scene all move like one panoramic human landscape.

She also, through clarity of approach, directorial instinct and dramatic savvy, gives the singers ample room to display their talents. Irina Loskutova as Maria was vocally a little distant and chilly to begin with but warmed up and gave a superlative rendition of the "Night Song," the opera's finale. Nikolai Putilin as Mazeppa was powerful and plangent if sometimes lacking a little character.

But the real star of the show was the orchestra which, under the baton of Valery Gergiev, gave a beautifully turned, practically faultless rendition of Tchaikovsky's score. The comparisons with Mariinsky, the 19th century maestro after which the theater is named, which Gergiev has been earning at opera houses throughout the world, may not have been so farfetched after all.

The second of the major new premieres is Prokofiev's "Igrok" ("The Gambler") which arrives via Paris and Milan. The composer's first opera was scheduled for late 1917 but was, famously, interrupted by the October Revolution. By the time it was seen again, more than ten years later, the world had already heaped acclaim on "The Fiery Angel" and "Love for Three Oranges" and it was inevitably viewed as a prelude to Prokofiev's two masterpieces.

But the opera, based on a short novel by Dostoyevsky about Alexei, a fallen aristocrat now in the service of a gambling, impoverished general, the family of whom is waiting for the death (and inheritance) of their grandmother, shows off Prokofiev's lyrical strengths, his energy and his deft comic touch. "Maybe 'The Gambler' is not of the stature of his later work," said Timur Tchaidze, the producer of the opera, "but I love it. Objectively, I know that in 'The Fiery Angel' there are some sections that are of a much higher level. But I find 'The Gambler' more exciting. The older Prokofiev is much wiser, undoubtedly, but the younger Prokofiev is much more impulsive, wilder, more dynamic."

Coming from a straight theater background, Tchaidze was drawn to this, his first opera, because of the unusual dramatic texture of the libretto, which hasn't been diluted or attenuated in the transformation from the novel to the grand operatic stage: "'The Gambler' allowed me to work with singers in exactly the same way as dramatical actors," he said, "because this opera is written on the principles of drama. The only difference is that they happen to be singing. Prokofiev never changed a single word form the original text of Dostoevsky. Usually there is a special style for opera librettos, stiff and flat. But here he doesn't change anything. It is entirely unique."

The production, which was already in the Mariinsky repertoire, has now been redesigned by George Tzypin: An expanse of green baize, a maze of revolving doors and mutating chandeliers replace the old naturalistic trappings. "The original set didn't have much movement in it," explained Tchaidze, "And to illustrate how the madness of the main character develops, we wanted to show his mental deterioration, his growing obsession with gambling. We wanted to reflect it all in the set.We wanted to show how a nice sweet provincial situation develops into a mental illness. I hope we succeeded"

Another exciting addition to the new season is an entirely new version of "Prince Igor," which Borodin worked on for 18 years but left unfinished at his death in 1887. It was kindly completed by Rimsky-Korsak ov and his younger friend, Alexander Glazunov, who gathered together whatever manuscripts were available and produced the version that has been seen on our stages for the past century. But recently new materials have come to light, and through the co-operation of the Russian composer Yury Falik, and extensive revision has been made: an extra aria for Prince Igor, a different sequence and number of acts and a far more balanced, dramatically satisfying and smoother work all round.

The other premieres of the season are Jean Carl Del Monaco's production of Verdi's "Otello," already seen at the Bonn Opera and to be designed by Wolf Heinrich Munstler. Also arriving in May will be Bizet's "Carmen" with the superb Olga Borodina in the title role. Her rendition of "My Love is like a Gypsy Child," one of the most famous and most beautiful arias in the opera canon, will be worth the undignified scramble for tickets.

"Carmen" premieres June 26 and then shows June 28. "The Gambler" premieres June 3 and then shows June 18. "Otello" premieres on May 26. "Mazeppa" is next performed on May 29 and June 30. "Prince Igor" is running in repertory. All dates are subject to change, so be sure to confirm with the theater (812-114-5264). The Mariinsky Theater of Opera and Ballet (formerly the Kirov) is located at Teatralnaya Ploshchad 1.