With its new production of Mazeppa, the Metropolitan Opera becomes the latest opera company to venture beyond Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades into the lesser-known territory of Tchaikovsky's eight other operas. It is fitting that with Mazeppa the Met takes this step toward giving Tchaikovsky the recognition he deserves as an opera composer, for it was with this opera that he achieved recognition from his countrymen as Russia's leading composer. The circumstances of the premiere in February 1884 could hardly have been more auspicious: concurrent productions both at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, where it opened on February 15, and, three days later, at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, with Tsar Alexander III attending. It brought the 43-year-old composer much prestige, which the opera's ultimate inability to hold a place in the repertoire could not undo.
Mazeppa falls at roughly the chronological midpoint of Tchaikovsky's operatic output, with Eugene Onegin behind him and The Queen of Spades still in the future. Like each of them‹and countless other Russian operas‹Mazeppa is based on a work by Alexander Pushkin. Yet it is quite different from the better-known operas, in which romantic relationships play out against the background of Russian social structures. Mazeppa too has a love interest, but the background is an epochal historical struggle. The difference is like that between La Traviata and one of the darker works of Verdi's later middle-period. Yet, significantly, the historical dimension of Mazeppa had political implications that still resonated late in the 19th century.
Indeed, the way a Russian observer regarded Ivan Stepanovich Mazeppa (b. 1632 or 1644, d. 1709), the hetman of the Cossacks, said something about his patriotism. Was the Ukrainian leader a patriot committed to liberating his country from the degradation of Russian oppression? Or was he an arch-turncoat who shifted allegiance from Russia to Sweden, thereby betraying Peter the Great and the confidence the Tsar had placed in him by allowing him to rule the Ukraine with a relatively free hand? By adopting the latter, pro-Russia view, Pushkin seized the opportunity to portray himself as a loyal Russian subject after narrowly avoiding being implicated in the Decembrists' conspiracy against Nikolas I. Pushkin even called his great dramatic poem, published in 1828, not Mazeppa after its main character, but Poltava, the site of the 1709 battle that ended the Northern War and secured Russia against threats from Eastern Europe. Pushkin thus chose a title synonymous with Russian military prowess for a work that, for all its literary merit, serves to polish the image of Peter the Great and, in turn, that of Mother Russia herself.
He did this largely by creating, in the character of Mazeppa, an enemy of Russia who was readily transformable into a great operatic villain. And like many such villains, his evil side is revealed more through his personal dealings with others‹above all his beloved Maria (or Matryona) Kochubey‹than through his own professional affairs. In this respect, Pushkin was aided by history. The romance between Mazeppa, when he was at least 65 years old, and his goddaughter, Maria, only 18, is not the typical fabricated love interest grafted on to historical incident, but an actual (if brief) relationship documented by surviving letters. Likewise, five years later, the historical Mazeppa engineered the death of her father, Vasily Kochubey, after the latter betrayed him to Peter (by which time the historical Maria was probably married to someone else). Taking upon himself the prerogative of poetic license, Pushkin telescopes these events so that they occur at the same time. The result is the grisly spectacle of a man steeped in the love for a woman while plotting, behind her back, the death of her father.
As a sign that the political implications of the Mazeppa story were appreciated by the authorities, the Russian imperial theaters commissioned on their own a libretto on the subject by Viktor Burenin, who followed Pushkin closely, even incorporating the poet's language in places. Karl Davidov, a famous cellist, had first claim on setting the libretto to music, but when Tchaikovsky learned that Davidov's other commitments might interfere, he stepped in‹"I find the subject of Poltava very tempting," the composer wrote‹and was promptly assigned the libretto. The composer, a loyal monarchist, had no difficulty with Pushkin's pro-Russia stance. The grandly ceremonial music in The Queen of Spades, when Catherine the Great (almost) makes an onstage appearance, fairly reflected the composer's own sentiments. Mazeppa also contains an overt display of musical patriotism in Act III when the battle of Poltava is depicted orchestrally, culminating in the great "slava" theme that Mussorgsky had earlier drawn on for Boris Godunov.
Other treatments of the hetman are more favorable or at least neutral. An 1839 play by the Polish dramatist Juliusz Slowacki portrays Mazeppa as, in the words of music historian Richard Taruskin, "a virtual saint." Taruskin has also pointed out that Voltaire, in different works, championed each of the opposing views on the hetman. Lord Byron immortalized a supposed episode from Mazeppa's youth when he was caught seducing the wife of a Polish nobleman. The latter exacted revenge by strapping the youth naked to the back of a horse and sending him roaming through the countryside. Although the story is unrelated to Pushkin and the opera, it is also the root of Liszt's tone poem Mazeppa.
Tchaikovsky portrayed Mazeppa as bloodthirsty and, ultimately, as a loser. But, like Pushkin, was too shrewd a dramatist to cast him as simply a dastardly, one-dimensional villain. When the plot begins to unfold with Mazeppa's request for Kochubey's permission to marry Maria‹handled in a cinematic way by simply showing the two apparently conversing, while guests of the Kochubeys dance in the foreground‹Mazeppa's proposition is not untenable. To be sure, it is unconventional and proscribed by the church as well (Mazeppa is confident of a dispensation), but it has reason behind it because Maria reciprocates Mazeppa's love. By contrast, Kochubey appears rigid in his flat-out opposition. Before Mazeppa gives way to anger, he states his case with poise and composure in a fine arioso with words based on Pushkin's: young love is volatile, but an old man's heart resists momentary passions.
A sequence of numbers midway through Act II reveals more about Mazeppa's character. First comes a monologue in which he wrestles with himself over the fate of Kochubey, weighing, as opera characters often do, whether he should listen to love or to duty. But the duty here, which wins out, is not to some higher end but to his own aggrandizement and lust for power. No sooner does he give orders for Kochubey's death, however, than he shows a more mellow side. At the request of the baritone who first sang Mazeppa, Bogomir Korsov, Tchaikovsky gave the hetman another arioso, one even more heartfelt in its lyricism than that in Act I. Here he expresses the ardor and genuineness of his love for Maria in a manner that recalls another old man's tribute to a younger woman, Prince Gremin's in Eugene Onegin.
Tchaikovsky is known for commencing the composition of an opera by first turning to the scene that most intrigued him. In Eugene Onegin it was Tatiana's Letter Scene, in The Queen of Spades, the confrontation between Hermann and the Countess in the latter's boudoir. In Mazeppa he first addressed the Act II duet for Mazeppa and Maria. Here the hetman quells Maria's doubts about whether he really loves her, and then discloses plans to rule an independent Ukraine. The latter prospect wins her unqualified approval, but he also forces her to choose whether he or her father is dearer to her, without disclosing the true state of affairs. The duet, with its stirring, noble music, has an almost surreal quality because‹largely through Mazeppa's own doing‹their dreams are so far from reality.
Maria plunges to earth in the very next scene when her desperate mother enlists her help in a vain attempt to save her father. When she and Mazeppa meet again by chance on the Kochubeys' ruined estate, she has lost her reason and he is fleeing following the rout of Poltava. (The real Mazeppa reached Turkey, where he died before the year was over.) Shocked at her condition and perhaps even remorseful, Mazeppa nevertheless decides not to jeopardize his escape by taking her with him. In an astute departure from Burenin's libretto, Tchaikovsky dispenses with Maria's suicide and leaves her alone with the dying Cossack Andrei‹her onetime suitor whose love she never reciprocated. The sight of an opera heroine gone mad is a familiar one, but Tchaikovsky gives it a renewed poignancy as Maria, believing Andrei to be a child, intones a haunting lullaby in the score's final moments.