- The Washington Times - Friday, December 19, 2003

The Kirov Opera opened its all-too-brief run of Tchaikovsky’s tragic opera “Mazeppa” Thursday at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Virtually unknown in the West and mounted only once previously in the United States, this spectacular production is probably the best argument yet for expanding the repertoire of Russian and Slavic opera in this city. It’s a shame there will be only one more performance.

Bloody-minded and Russian to the core, “Mazeppa” is a little like “Boris Godunov” mixed with “Tosca.” There’s nationalism aplenty, but there’s also a hero who’s a villain, as well as wanton murder and torture. It’s the kind of gripping evening of musical theater the company’s “Onegin” was not.

“Mazeppa,” based on Pushkin’s poem “Poltava,” focuses on part of the epic tale of the Ukrainian hero Ivan Mazeppa. The Hetman, or chief, of the Cossacks, Mazeppa schemes to gain independence for his country by allying with Swedish King Charles XII to push back Czar Peter the Great, with predictably disastrous results.

Against this historical background emerges Mazeppa’s private story, his romance with a young woman who is also his goddaughter. Maria worships the old hero and runs away with him, to the chagrin of her father, Kochubey, who mounts a plot against the Hetman to disclose his treachery to the czar, leading to a family tragedy amid Mazeppa’s battlefield defeat.

There were plenty of open seats at Thursday’s performance — not atypical in Washington for an opera that no one knows. However, those who did come were treated to a work of rare power, romance and grandiose spectacle in the high Russian style. While lacking some of the memorable themes of “Onegin,” Tchaikovsky’s music for “Mazeppa” is thrillingly epic in scope.

Although showing some signs of age, the Kirov’s lavish production thankfully escaped the September fire that destroyed many of the troupe’s other sets. Combined with wonderfully colorful costumes, including togs for the best-dressed peasants this side of the Caucasus, the entire production was an ample illustration of why this kind of musical drama has become known as “grand” opera.

At the top of an outstanding cast was soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya as the ill-fated young Maria. With a gloriously silvery voice, Miss Pavlovskaya accomplished the seemingly impossible task of sounding girlish and innocent while singing at times with near-Wagnerian power. As the title character, baritone Nikolai Putilin was wickedly convincing as the alpha male whose hubris brings down everyone around him. His deep, piercing voice was well-suited to this opera, and he wielded it with authority, with only an occasional hint of fatigue.

Singing the role of the miserable Kochubey, whose good deed for the czar is roundly punished, bass Vladimir Vaneev managed to be at once impetuously foolish and impossibly brave. He handled Tchaikovsky’s challenging low notes with ease, remaining clear and audible in this range — no mean feat against a large orchestra. As the youthful Andrey, who gets to shine in the first and final acts, tenor Oleg Balashov became, in his brief moments, a credible, though rebuffed, romantic lead, with an instrument at once assured and passionate.

In lesser roles, mezzo-soprano Larissa Diadkova (Liubov, Kochubey’s wife) handled with aplomb some of the lowest female notes on record, and tenor Viktor Vikhrov added some welcome Shakespearean levity to the otherwise chilling scaffold scene.

Adding to this production’s luster was the almost perfect balance achieved between the company’s orchestra and its well-matched singers — a balance that eluded “Onegin” on opening night. The orchestra pulled back from the singers when it had to. Yet when full, passionate volume was necessary, the orchestra, under Valery Gergiev, provided it while the singers soared above.

****

WHAT: The Kirov Opera’s production of Tchaikovsky’s “Mazeppa”

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: Dec. 20 at 7:30 p.m.

TICKETS: $40 to $250

INFORMATION: Call 202/467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.


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