With numbers like “If I Loved You,” Rodgers & Hammerstein perfected the conditional love song, allowing them to start the show with a romantic tune yet not test credibility by having their newly introduced leads profess undying love from the get-go. Tchaikovsky faced a similar dilemma in 1883, adapting Pushkin’s poem “Poltava” to the opera stage. His solution for “Mazeppa,” which made its very belated Met debut Monday night, was to get things rolling by having the maiden Maria and her young Cossack admirer, Andrei, sing an “I’ve Always Loved You/I Never Loved You” duet.
Having gotten that bit of lovely soprano-tenor lyricism out of the way, Tchaikovsky could then quickly shift gears to expose a May-December romance between Maria and 70-year-old military leader Mazeppa, which definitely doesn’t sit well with her wealthy Cossack parents. Suffice to say that all civil war breaks out when the offstage tsar, Peter the Great, makes the mistake of backing the turncoat Mazeppa over the loyal Cossacks. Mazeppa kills Maria’s father and Maria goes nuts.
Sound like real book problems? In his Met directorial debut, Yuri Alexandrov never loses sight of the political story by always emphasizing the personal drama with insightful, if sometimes fussy, direction. (Does the lovesick Mazeppa actually cheat on Maria? Should Maria really try on his crown for size?)
In the pit, conductor Valery Gergiev makes Tchaikovsky sound like Mussorgsky, and even if “Mazeppa” is not top-drawer opera on the level of the composer’s “Eugene Onegin” or “Pique Dame,” it deserves to be part of the repertory. Lovers of Russian opera can only hope that stagings of “The Maid of Orleans” and “Iolanta” are not far behind.
It’s hard to imagine more Tchaikovsky-friendly artists than Nikolai Putilin in the title role and Paata Burchuladze and Larissa Diadkova as Maria’s parents. In opera, Tchaikovsky was never more effective than when essaying a plaintive, sexual yearning, and Putilin turns his big second-act aria “Oh, Maria” into a showcase of character-driven singing. Here’s a singer-actor who can convey Mazeppa’s complex, essentially brutish nature while never sacrificing the elegance of the music’s line.
As the heroine Maria, Olga Guryakova displays a soprano with surprisingly rich, plummy mezzo qualities in act one. Only later, when she reveals an unsupported upper register, does it become apparent that, just possibly, she really is a mezzo. Oleg Balashov is completely overtaxed as the spurned Andrei.
Set designer George Tsypin is on board to bring Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” to Broadway, under the direction of Francesca Zambello, which should be interesting. At the Met, he is now 2½ to 2½. “War and Peace” and “The Magic Flute” were hits, “Benvenuto Cellini” and “The Gambler” were misses. “Mazeppa,” a co-production with St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater, is all over the place stylistically.
Granted, the first act of “Mazeppa” is a real violin-bruiser, with too much bombast as the troops are rallied into action. It includes one of Tchaikovsky’s rare failures at writing a ballet, and costume designer Tatiana Noginova emphasizes that fact with gold clown pants for the danseurs and tutus over short cocktail dresses for the ballerinas.
Equally bizarre is Tsypin’s choice to populate the Cossacks’ home turf with fascist statues straight from the Soviet realist period. Gleb Filshtinsky’s showbiz lighting for the act-two beheading looks left over from the Roundabout’s recent production of “Assassins.” But there is also much to admire here: The tableau that follows Kochubey’s execution is chilling in its grizzly detail of disembodied heads, and Tsypin’s barren, snow-covered battlefield is the perfect stage for this most melancholic score.