It is a strange coincidence that, as the frictions between Ukraine and Russian make headline news, the NTR Zaterdag Matinee opera series opens its new season with Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa. The libretto of Tchaikovsky’s opera is based on an epic poem by Pushkin, inspired by the Battle of Poltava (1709) during which Tsar Peter’s troops defeated an army of Ukrainian insurgents and their Swedish allies.

Lado Ataneli © IMG Artists
Lado Ataneli
© IMG Artists

Mazeppa is a bloodthirsty tale featuring political persecution, torture, murder, war and madness. The Ukrainian hetman Mazeppa visits Kotchubey, a wealthy Cossack leader, and asks him for the hand of his young daughter Mariya. When the old man refuses, he threatens him in vain. Mariya, who is infatuated with the much older Mazeppa, eventually follows him, giving up both her family and Andrei, her childhood friend and suitor. Revengeful, Kotchubey discloses to the Tsar Mazeppa’s plans to liberate Ukraine with the help of the Swedes. The Tsar however does not believe him and hands him over to Mazeppa. Kotchubey is tortured and beheaded, just as Mariya and her mother Lyubov arrive to plead for his life. At Poltava, the Swedish troops and Mazeppa’s are crushed by the Tsar. Mazeppa manages to escape by killing Andrei. Grief drives Mariya into madness.

The music matches the story in terms of drama. There are plenty of loud and flamboyantly exciting moments, most notably at the opening of Act III that depicts the Battle of Poltava, complete with charging cavalry and firing cannons. But there is also melancholic lyricism in the dialogue between Mazeppa and Mariya, as well as exotic local colour in some of the choirs inspired by traditional Ukrainian folk songs. At the Concertgebouw last Saturday, Russian conductor Alexander Vedernikov took the audience on this musical rollercoaster journey with just the right balance of gusto and sensitivity. He drew rich and beautiful colours from the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest and their performance, as well as that of the Groot Omroepkoor, was at all times no less than captivating.

Gelena Gaskarova © Askonas Holt
Gelena Gaskarova
© Askonas Holt

The cast of soloists, an entirely Slavic team, was excellent. There is no doubt where Tchaikovsky’s sympathies lie: the hetman Mazeppa is portrayed as a ruthless and demonic character. The dark sound of Georgian baritone Lado Ataneli suited the role perfectly. His beautifully sung second act arioso “O, Mariya, Mariya!” is the only moment the hetman appears to have a heart. Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow was a noble and imposing Kotchubey, most heart-rending in the dungeon scene. Gelena Gaskarova, a soloist at the Mariinsky Theatre, portrayed a lovely and affecting Mariya. Her soprano, bright with a rich mid-range and perhaps just a hint of shrillness at the very top when singing forte, sounded ideal for the role of the young girl. Russian tenor Vsevovold Grivnov was an ardent and engaging Andrei. Ekaterina Semenchuk’s powerhouse mezzo-soprano provided one of the emotional highlights of the whole performance in the scene in which Lyubov urges her daughter to intervene to save Kotchubey’s life.

Considering the immense popularity of Eugene Onegin,it is strange that Mazeppa is still so rarely heard outside of Russia. I found its music always extremely engaging and often just as thrilling as Tchaikovsky’s most popular opera. There is certainly no shortage of Russian-speaking singers to cast it on the international circuit at the moment. Last Saturday afternoon’s performance visibly won the audience who responded with loud cheers and rounds of applause at the curtain call. Not since the 1990s, when Gergiev and his forces of the Mariinsky were regular guests at the Concertgebouw, had I heard such enthusiasm in the Amsterdam public for a work of the Russian repertoire.