Cossacks, Cossacks, guests, servants of Kochubei, serdeyuki, monks, hangmen.
The action takes place in Ukraine at the beginning of the XVIII century.
In the summer of 1881, while resting in Ukraine, in his beloved Kamenka, Tchaikovsky sketched out the opera plan for the plot of Pushkin’s poem “Mazepa” (1828). “One day,” he says, “I read the libretto, read Pushkin’s poem, was touched by some scenes and poems – and started from the stage between Maria and Mazepa, which was transferred from the poem without a change to the libretto.” At the disposal of the composer was a libretto created by VP Burenin (1841-1926) for the composer K. Yu. Davydov, a famous cellist and then director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. But Davydov abandoned his plan, giving way to the plot of “Mazepa” Tchaikovsky. Not without hesitation the composer began composing music. The need to combine the personal drama of Mary with the epic
paintings of the Battle of Poltava, with the story of a conspiracy insidious hetman set him a difficult task. Recalling his work on Mazepa, Tchaikovsky noted that no great work was given to him with such difficulty. However, the power and charm of Pushkin’s poems, the inimitable brilliance of the images were a powerful creative stimulus. The score of the opera, over which Tchaikovsky worked more than two years, was ready in April 1883.
The first performances of Mazepa took place in Moscow at the Bolshoi Theater on February 3 (15), 1884, and in St. Petersburg at the Mariinsky Theater on February 7 (19) the same year. The opera was modestly successful, after two seasons it was removed from the repertoire and resumed at the Mariinsky Theater only in 1903. However, this opera entered the repertoire of Soviet theaters as one of the outstanding works of Russian musical art.
“Mazepa” occupies a special place in the work of Tchaikovsky. A sharply disputed personal drama unfolds here on a broad historical background, and a musical-dramatic solution combines the principles of lyric-psychological
and historical opera. Next to intimate, lyrically painted scenes, there are developed choral and symphonic episodes that recreate the rapid breathing and drama of real historical events.
In the orchestral introduction contrasting musical episodes are compared; some associated with the image of the vengeful hetman, cause an idea of a wild, precipitous leap, others, luminous, lyrically singing, tell of his love.
A gentle maiden song in the national spirit opens the first picture. The agitated arioso of Mary “Some power incomprehensible” – her confession of secret love. The duet of Mary and Andrew, full of dramatic emotions, is replaced by the unfolded popular mass stage, in which the solemn music of Mazepa’s exit alternates, the play song “No, there is no bridge” and an incendiary gopak. In the scene of the quarrel between Mazepa and Kochubei, after the sensual arioso of the hetman “Instantly the heart is young,” an unfolded ensemble with a chorus appears. The music of the finale of the first painting sounds menacing and powerful.
At the beginning of the second picture – Arioso-lamentation of Lubov “Where are you, my child,” a heartfelt sad song, picked up by women’s choir. Aria Kochubei “In the old days, when with Mazepa” is sustained in severe-narrative tones. His next aria, “No, the impudent predator” is full of determination. The final scene of the plot against Mazepa is a large ensemble that grows into a powerful chorus.
A laconic introduction to the first picture of the second act paints Kochubey’s suffering, which contrasts the vindictiveness and malice of Mazepa (the middle episode of entry). The aria of Kochubey “What a death, a long-awaited dream” is imbued with a severe drama. His recitative and arioso “Three Treasures” expressively convey the nobility and inner strength of a person who is convinced of his rightness.
The orchestral introduction to the second painting embodies the contrast between a peaceful poetic summer night and the cruelty of Mazepa. In Mazepa’s monologue “The Ukrainian Night is Quiet” his mental turmoil and violent lust for power are expressed. In the arena of Mazepa “About Mary” his appearance reveals itself from the best side; A broad melody is breathing with light peace and caress. The scene in which the small arias of Mary, fanned with longing and tenderness, the quivering of feelings, interspersed with dialogues, is crowned with the hetman’s story of the conspiracy “We long ago devised a deal”; in the orchestra at first muffled and mysterious, and then a harsh, chased march sounds powerful and triumphant. A small monologue of Mary “Oh my dear” is full of rapture, delight. A profound drama full of mother’s story about the impending execution. The painting ends with a big duet of Maria and Lyubov,
The third painting, the execution, is one of the darkest in the opera. This is a detailed mass choral scene, permeated with nervous anxiety. The comic song of a drunken Cossack makes a tragic shade. The terrible and solemn, gradually growing march is opposed to the sorrowful prayer of the condemned, which is picked up by the choir. The painting ends with a laconic musical characteristic of Mazepa; Following her, like an epitaph, music comes from the deathbed prayer of the executed.
The third act is preceded by the symphonic interlude “The Battle of Poltava” – a battle painting that portrays the battle of the Russians with the Swedes, the triumph of victory and the triumphant march of the Russian troops; this is one of the outstanding examples of Russian program music.
The finale of the opera opens with Andrey’s aria “Osirotel desolate house”, depicting his soft, intimate face. The scene of the last meeting between Mazepa and Mary is full of true tragedy; fragments of tender love confessions are replaced by sharp, broken music, which transmits the madness of Mary. A brief symphonic episode depicts the leap of Mazepa and Orlik (overture music). Mary’s lullaby “Sleep, my beautiful baby,” gentle, light and affectionate, completes the opera.