Delacroix’s Mazeppa on the Dying Horse (1824)

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Berliner Philharmonie, Herbert-von-Karajan-Straße, Berlin

The Berlin Philharmonic has been residing in Baden-Baden for a week or so, including two concert performances of Tchaikovsky’s Pushkin-inspired opera Mazeppa (1881-83, premiered the following year at the Bolshoi, and soon after at the Mariinsky). Now returned home, albeit before heading off to Denmark, Germany (Hamburg), Italy and Sweden (ending in Rome), the Berliners and Petrenko were giving another rendition of the Russian composer’s seventh of eleven stage-works (fourteen with the three ballets), Eugene Onegin already produced.

Cards on the table (and I don’t mean The Queen of Spades, then still to be written), I have never heard Mazeppa. Here’s one description of its plot: “a blood-thirsty tale of crazy love, abduction, political persecution, execution, and vengeful murder.”

From my point of view as a Mazeppa novice, this Berlin presentation of it was absorbing and revealing. The dramatic overture also introduced lyrical love-interest, Tchaikovsky in full-on theatrical mode, gifted in scene-setting and vivid characterisation, and self-evidently by this composer … maintained throughout the three Acts (six scenes) and two hours & forty-five minutes of music.

With fabulous Slavic-intense singing (including from the chorus) and equally distinguished playing – Tchaikovsky’s orchestral prowess on full display (large forces deployed, including ‘French’ brass, i.e., pairs of trumpets and pairs of cornets à pistons, and beguiling use of woodwinds and harp) – I have not heard the familiar ‘Gopak’, from the hour-long Act I, taken as quickly as this, Petrenko smiling throughout, presumably at the responsive virtuosity, and then he took the conclusion even faster. A coruscating ‘Battle of Poltava’ opened Act III, with bass drum gunfire.

Otherwise, it was a case of listening, with so much being proposed by so doing, and the sound was superb, glancing at the words, and wondering why this opera is not allowed out more often for staging or generally better-known; I traced only four recordings, the first from Russia in 1949, the most recent seeming to be Gergiev’s 1996 version (how many of Onegin, I wonder).

It’s quite something to discover a masterpiece without previously knowing that it is one. Given the BP has its own label, e.g.,, this nothing-needs-patching performance of Mazeppa (save for getting rid of interrupting/irritating clapping) could hopefully be issued. It warrants the widest circulation.

Vladislav Sulimsky baritone (Mazeppa)

Olga Peretyatko soprano (Maria)

Dimitry Ivashchenko bass (Orlik)

Dmitry Ulyanov bass (Kochubey)

Oksana Volkova mezzo-soprano (Mother)

Dmitry Golovnin tenor (Andrey)

Alexander Kravets tenor (Drunk Cossack)

Anton Rositskii tenor (Iskra)

Rundfunkchor Berlin