At the end of the season, and before closing for the summer break, the Komische Oper Berlin reprise some of their most successful recent productions for one night only in the Komische Oper Festival, including the popular “cartoon” Magic Flute. Included in this busy week was a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa, a rarely performed epic opera of battle-torn love and murder.

Asmik Grigorian, Robert Hayward © Monika Rittershaus
Asmik Grigorian, Robert Hayward
© Monika Rittershaus

Based on Pushkin’s poem about the battle of Poltava in Ukraine, Maria, daughter of the wealthy nobleman Kochubey, is infatuated with the elderly Cossack hetman Mazeppa. Maria’s childhood friend Andrei is appalled when she chooses to run off with Mazeppa, and so are her father and mother (Lyubov), and revenge is planned. However, the Tsar turns Kochubey over to Mazeppa, who tortures him to try to get him to reveal the whereabouts of his personal fortune. Maria detects that Mazeppa is behaving suspiciously, and is forced to swear loyalty to him. Her mother reveals the truth about Kochubey’s execution, and Maria arrives too late to stop the act. Mazeppa’s Cossack uprising is savagely quelled by the Tsar’s imperial troops and, now a broken man on the run, he chances on Andrei still intent on revenge, and shoots him before running off. Maria becomes deranged, fails to recognise her childhood friend, yet sings a simple lullaby to him as he dies.

Belgian director Ivo van Hove chose to set the military tale in a modern-day country, unnamed but politically troubled. The sparse, monochrome fixed set conveyed a faded and scruffy barrack room with random tables, chairs and steps. Although there was a roof, the use of sodium and mercury lights suggested that at times we might have been in the street, or deep in an underground bunker. To add further menace, there was a small, man-sized cage on the floor and larger industrial meshed entrance to a unseen room. At times a partition was rolled across to allow the use of vivid images of the results of modern warfare to be projected. Costumes were modern-day dress for the People, and bottle-green uniforms for the Military. Racks of machine guns decorated the set.

The singing all round, in Russian, was outstanding, with Robert Hayward’s strong baritone as Mazeppa providing a sturdy lead which complemented soprano Asmik Grigorian’s Maria in her astonishing, moving performance. It was difficult to take one’s eyes off this couple, particularly at the opera’s lengthy turning-point in Act II. At a long wooden campaign table, Mazeppa sat powerfully in his hetman’s chair, yet as the balance of power shifted between them, Maria took took over his position, leaving the hetman to seek out a common moulded plastic chair. Grigorian cut a vulnerable, gamine-like figure, determined to run off with her lover in Act I, but pregnant in Act II – adding terror to the moment when Mazeppa threw her backwards onto the tabletop, and poignancy to her betrayal and her witnessing her father’s execution. She was disturbed, and no longer pregnant, when Mazeppa returned in the final act, seeing him merely as a worn-out old man on the run.

In demanding roles, Alexey Antonov as Kochubey and mezzo-soprano Agnes Zwierco as Lyubov both sang strongly, as did tenor Aleš Briscein as the lovelorn Andrei. Mazeppa has some large choruses, none larger than that during the execution scene, when van Hove had them wheeling round the stage and then facing us with guns raised above their heads. This was one of several big musical moments requiring a whole second brass section placed in the gods, trading military flourishes with their friends in the pit. With one interval midway in the second act, the excitement of execution was followed by the orchestra in a magnificent set piece which would surely stand on its own in the concert hall: “The Battle of Poltava”. With the safety curtain down, and (controversially for a production in Berlin) particularly harrowing images of executions, refugee camps, desperate children and the general war atrocities from around the world were projected.

There were some clever touches: after the execution of Kochubey, the crowd piled all the machine guns onto Mazeppa’s campaign table, overflowing into his lap, effectively washing their hands and laying the responsibility for the deed squarely with him.

Hungarian conductor and musical director of the Komische Oper Henrik Nánási urged his orchestra on to produce a quite thrilling performance, and marshalled the huge forces successfully in general. With players in the pit and the gods, and a large chorus facing different directions, there was plenty of opportunity for things to go awry, but apart from the odd moment, the set pieces were held together brilliantly. The sound balance was perfect with all singers’ voices carrying easily across the players.

The Komische Oper has translations in four languages in the back of the seat in front, a system which worked well. With such stirring, passionate music, and a great story of love and betrayal, one really wonders why this opera is not performed more widely.

****1