Alexey Isayev © privat

Content / Background

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote three operas based on works by Alexander Pushkin. All three end in tragedy, but none is so full of doom-laden, insane love, political entanglements and bloodthirsty cruelty than Mazeppa. The young Mariya rejects her young suitor Andrei because she is in love with the far older Cossack commander Mazeppa. Against the will of her parents, she follows the charismatic man. Her father Kochubey intends to take revenge on Mazeppa by revealing secret plans to stage an uprising, but the tsar does not believe him. Kochubey fails, and his adversary Mazeppa has him executed. When Mariya learns of this and is forced to witness her father’s beheading her love begins to waver. Mazeppa then really does incite an armed revolt against the tsar together with Swedish troops, but the rebellion is crushed. During his escape he shoots Andrei and leaves Mariya to her fate. At the end, she sits in the overgrown garden of her parents’ home, cradling the dying Andrei in her arms. She has lost her mind and sings him a lullaby. Tchaikovsky concentrates much more on the tragic love story than Pushkin’s original poem Poltava (1829) does. To heighten the tragedy, he invented Andrei as an additional character. The composer was evidently interested in this young woman’s love for a far older political troublemaker that flouts social conventions and the conflict with her vengeful parents. To portray the volatile family situations, Tchaikovsky adapts numerous Russian folk songs, and this intimate mood contrasts effectively with the big choral scenes. The premiere in Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre on 15 February 1884 was given a decidedly lukewarm reception by both the audience and the press. For subsequent performances, Tchaikovsky repeatedly revised the text. Whether this contributed to the gradually increasing popularity of the work is debatable, but following its indifferent start Mazeppa quickly became a crowd-puller and a fixture in the repertoire, at least in Russia, that was found more and more often on programmes in western Europe as the 20th century progressed.