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Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (born Kamsko-Votkinsk, 7 May 1840; died St Petersburg, 6 November 1893)

The composer and Viktor Burenin.

Epic poem Poltava (1829) by Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799-1837).

First performance: Moscow (Bolshoi Theatre), 15 February 1884.

First UK performance: Liverpool (), 6 August 1888.

First Performance in Scotland: Glasgow (Royal Concert Hall), 10 June 1999 (concert).

First performance in Scotland (staged): Edinburgh (Festival Theatre), 22 August 2006.
Scottish Opera premiere: N/A.

The Moscow and St Petersburg premieres were given only a few days apart. Its first performances in Britain were given soon after by a Russian touring company. The excellent 2006 production in Edinburgh was by the Lyon Opera directed by Peter Stein. The entire piece is very successful with a grand sweep in effective scenes, and several roles which give good opportunities to talented singing actors. Given the subject, it is perhaps not surprising that it should seem almost like a Musorgsky work. The historical background features the Battle of Poltava (1709) between Russia and the Swedish Ukrainian alliance led by Charles XII and Mazeppa.

Mazeppa, a Cossack chief, ruler of Ukraine (baritone)
Kochubey, a Ukrainian nobleman (bass)
Lyubov, Kochubey’s wife (mezzo-soprano)
Maria, Kochubey’s daughter (soprano)
Andrey, a young Cossack (tenor)
Orlik, Mazeppa’s henchman (bass)
Iskra, friend of Kochubey (tenor)
Drunken Cossack (tenor)

Plot Summary
Maria is loved by Andrey, but loves Mazeppa, in spite of his age. But Kochubey angrily refuses his request for her hand. Maria makes her own decision, and leaves with Mazeppa. Kochubey’s supporters are very upset by her departure, and they plot their revenge. Kochubey has heard that Mazeppa is planning a revolt against the Tsar, with Swedish help. He decides to inform Peter the Great. However Peter does not believe the story, and Kochubey and Iskra are handed over to Mazeppa for punishment. He is tortured extensively. Mazeppa feels some remorse at this, given his love for Kochubey’s daughter, but he convinces himself it is for the good of the Ukraine. Lyubov sneaks into the castle and, finding Maria, tells her of her father’s torture and that he is to be executed tomorrow. They resolve to save him, but the next day they are unable to prevent the deaths of Iskra and Kochubey. Mazeppa and the Swedes are soon defeated at the Battle of Poltava, which is effectively illustrated by the orchestra. Back at Kochubey’s ruined estate Andrey recalls his love for Maria. Mazeppa and Orlik arrive, to be challenged by Andrey, who is shot by Mazeppa. Maria appears, but she has been driven mad by grief, and does not recognise Mazeppa. He and Orlik leave. Maria then finds Andrey, and sings a lullaby as he dies in her arms.


PHILIPS (3 CDs) Sung in Russian Recorded 1996

Conductor: Valery Gergiev
Orchestra of Kirov Opera, St Petersburg
Nikolai Putilin (Mazeppa), Sergei Alexashkin (Kochubey), Irina Loskutova (Maria), Larissa Dyadkova (Lyubov), Viktor Lutsiuk (Andrey),

DG (3 CDs) Sung in Russian Recorded 1994

Conductor: Neeme Järvi Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
Sergei Leiferkus (Mazeppa), Anatoly Kotscherga (Kochubey), Galina Gorchakova (Maria), Larissa Dyadkova (Lyubov), Sergei Larin (Andrey).

It was odd that with Mazeppa having been ignored by record companies for years two excellent recordings should appear in quick succession. Inevitably buyers will not so much be required to choose between them as acquire whichever is available at any given time. Anyone who saw the Lyon staging directed by Peter Stein at the 2008 Edinburgh Festival will be well aware of the quality of the opera. Its neglect by comparison with other Tchaikovsky works is bizarre. Perhaps it is a bit gory – the DG box sums up the plot as “Enmity, betrayal, torture, execution, murder and madness” and it certainly does what it says on the tin. ENO mounted a cheap one-off staging a few years ago where the execution was carried out with chain saws, which of course dominated the publicity, so that the assessment of the work suffered.

The Kochubey of the Lyon staging, Anatoly Kotscherga, is an excellent element of the Järvi set. Leiferkus is warmly remembered from his many performances with Scottish Opera (the company relearnt Eugene Onegin in Russian specially to lure him back for the 1988 revival). Gorchakova and Dyadkova are also both essentially Kirov artists who are brilliantly moving singing actors. Neeme Järvi has been, of course, a frequent and popular visitor to Scotland since his SNO years – it is a pity he has not actually conducted opera here, because his instinct for drama is superb, and his Gothenburg orchestra is with him all the way.

The Gergiev recording is just as recommendable, though its virtues are different. The Kirov chorus and orchestra are wonderful. The soloists all sing well, but perhaps lack the individuality of utterance that Järvi’s team possesses. Putilin’s voice is simply not as instantly identifiable as Leiferkus’s. Dyadkova is moving as Kochubey’s widow in both versions.

The Cast

 a young Cossack
Drunken Cossack
 friend of Kochubey
 a Ukrainian nobleman
 Kochubey's wife
 Kochubey's daughter
 a Cossack chief, ruler of Ukraine
 Mazeppa's henchman

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