Tchaikovsky MAZEPPA, Met (opera premiere) 06.III.2006; c. Gergiev; Guryakova, Diadkova, Balashov, Putilin, Burchuladze, Glassman.
Mazeppa doesn't have the lyrical polish associated with Tchaikovsky's more renowned operas Eugene Onegin and Queen of Spades. In the hands of the gruff Maestro Valery Gergiev, the opera reaches the Met with a thoroughly Russian flavor: dour, gray skies looming over every scene, nonetheless bombastic and brimming with fight. Gergiev transforms the usually urbane Met orchestra into a rusty farm tractor, which in this instance is not entirely inappropriate. The relentless rough and tumble energy emanating from the pit is exciting if a bit exhausting.
The title role of Mazeppa is sung powerfully by Nikolai Putilin, easily his best work at the Met to date. Likewise, the basso Paata Burchuladze, unmemorable elsewhere, turns in an affecting Kochubey. The home "turf" advantage continues with Larissa Diadkova, who as Lyubov produces a creamy, even grade A dramatic mezzo with more healthy heft than in recent outings. Oleg Balashov has a pint-sized tenor, which doesn't make an impression till the third act, when he achieves a surprisingly sympathetic Andrei, via a voice overcome by sweetness and desperation. As Maria, Olga Guryakova showcases an exquisite lyric soprano with a significant dramatic bent: expressive, beautiful, smooth and solid as a polished pearl, appropriately sized, easy top held up by an honest lower middle to chest: unlike a significant number of Russian singers populating the rosters of many major companies, she deserves the international career she has (and more). The Met should engage her in lyric Verdi (e.g. Luisa Miller, Trovatore Leonora).
Finally, the design team, led by Yuri Alexandrov (who debuts with this production), put together the worst thing I've ever seen on the Met stage. (See some photos here.) There are columns and huge carpets and statues and a faux proscenium whose top moves up and down to signify nothing but the lack of ideas and any sense of beauty. I've never seen so much red and gold in my life, for sure: folks in red costume in a red set flooded by red light (and the same for gold). Beyond Broadway, even. Moreover, the choreography and stage direction are amateurish and mostly meaningless, and detracted from the seriousness and majesty of Tchaikovsky's brooding masterpiece, as well as from the cast's magnificent vocal performance. Certainly a tremendous waste of Met resources and talent. That kind of utter crap isn't for this stage and this company. The design team should have gotten much louder boos than that.
WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
From the blogosphere, Maury writes a more enthusiastic and thoroughly hilarious report about the production: "All I can say is it was like you were playing a Ukrainian history themed pinball machine and you hit the ball in the little hole all the way up top and got 100,000 points." Depends, of course, on how much pinball you like in your opera. I don't; some do. Meanwhile, Alex Wellsung argues passionately for another look: "(T)he connections are often dim, the colors are impetuous and sometimes maddening, the textures veer wildly between the opulent and the cheap...did I mention we're in Russia? Exactly. This is stagecraft that smuggles itself piece by piece into your brain then suddenly congeals and steps on all your neurons at once." I can't argue with any of that, except that I personally don't like anything congealing in my neurons without my permission.
As for the print media, mild-mannered Tony Tommasini of the NYT lets out his inner queen and fillets the production like I've never seen before: "(I)t is cluttered with symbolism and, for all its pomp and glitter, rather trashy looking. Seemingly intent on showing the story as a parable for the continuing sectarian strife of greater Russia, Mr. Alexandrov has given the opera an intergalactic gloss. Was George Lucas a design and concept consultant?" And over at the NY Sun, Fred Kirshnit tells of "a decapitation wherein the head of the paterfamilias is bounced the entire length of that slanted set and caught with the agility of a soccer goalie by our heroine, Maria. (If she had missed, the noggin might have ended up in the bell of the tuba.)," and goes on to say that "(a)ll that was missing were the Rockettes. In fact, a patron could watch this entire show and never once be distracted by the music."
An interesting cartography of the murky border between failure and flop appears in David Patrick Stearns' review in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "The production isn't a failure so much as it's a flop. As defined by theater historian Ken Mandelbaum, flops have their brilliant streaks that make bad decisions look worse, and often the purity of good intentions. This isn't some gleefully perverse take on an opera, but a sincere, if Donald Trump-style, effort to bring an undeservedly obscure opera to mainstream audiences." Therefore, in true Donald Trump-style, someone has got to get fired for such a "spectacular flop."