In the last quarter century, the rich, varied repertory of Russian opera has been more fully discovered by western audiences through recordings and touring companies. Valery Gergiev, artistic director the Mariinsky Theatre and principal guest conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, has been particularly instrumental in sharing the wealth of Russian opera with audiences here and in Europe. This season, the Met's first ever production of Tchaikovsky's Mazeppa, a co-production with the Mariinsky, receives its broadcast premiere on the Toll Brothers-Metropolitan Opera International Radio network on March 18, 2006.
Russian opera was slow to be introduced at the Met. Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades was the first Russian opera given at the Met, in German, on March 5, 1910, under the baton of Gustav Mahler, with Emmy Destinn and Leo Slezak in the cast. It was performed only four times before disappearing from the Met for more than a half-century. Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin finally appeared at the Met in 1920 with another illustrious cast, Claudia Muzio, Giovanni Martinelli, and Giuseppe de Luca, conducted by Artur Bodanzky, but it too failed to enter the repertory with any frequency until it returned in 1957 in a new production by Peter Brook.
Critical reaction to the Met premieres of both Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin seem perverse today when both works are generally acknowledged masterpieces. In both cases, critics found the Pushkin stories on which the works were based poor subjects for an opera. The New York Telegraph called Queen of Spades a "somewhat childish story," and the eminent critic H.E. Krehbiel sniffed of Onegin, "A more inane and amateurishly constructed opera book is not conceivable." Perhaps the real source of his condescension was reflected in the headline of his review, "Eugene Onegin Given Hearty Greeting Here--Tschaikoffy's [sic] Opera Awakens Unusual Interest in Public, Especially on the Lower East Side."
The one Russian work to gain immediate popularity at the Met was the most iconically "Russian" of all, Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, which had its Met premiere in 1913, and has been performed on a regular basis ever since. It was precisely the lack of specifically Russian character that some early critics deplored in Tchaikovsky's works. "Of the national color which constitutes the strength and charm of the operas by Mussorgsky and Borodin there is none except the songs of the reapers and maidens in the first scene," wrote Krehbiel of Onegin. The perceived "Italianate" nature of the arias and duets, emphasized by the fact that the opera was sung in Italian, was another negative for many of the religiously Wagnerite critics of the day.
Tchaikovsky's two most famous operas have been broadcast from the Met on numerous occasions, Eugene Onegin ten times since 1957, and Queen of Spades, four, beginning in 1966. Mazeppa, only the third of Tchaikovsky's nine extant operas to be performed by the Met, is a sweeping historical drama with a vibrant, impassioned, romantic score that is sure to be a revelation for audiences in the opera house and listening to the broadcast around the world.