Met's 'Mazeppa' a spectacular flop - but go

Posted: March 08, 2006

NEW YORK — Nothing in the performing arts sinks on a scale as grand as opera. And even by those standards, the Metropolitan Opera's breathtakingly vulgar, amazingly wrongheaded new production of Tchaikovsky's Mazeppa, which opened Monday at Lincoln Center, is in the Exxon Valdez zone.

You could tell by the number of mink-clad refugees headed toward the door at intermission. Or, among those who stayed, by a certain distracted quality in their applause, as if they were wondering why nobody stopped this production before it got this far.

This doesn't mean one should cancel plans or turn in previously purchased Mazeppa tickets. No, no, no! It's a major score sung by significant Russian voices under the supercharged direction of conductor Valery Gergiev. And as for the production, opera this deliciously egregious doesn't come along often.

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.

Completed in 1883, Mazeppa dramatizes the life of the ruthless 17th-century conqueror who attempted to liberate Ukraine from czarist Russia, but not without first having a May-December romance: Mazeppa marries his goddaughter, turning her powerful, rich family against him, and inspiring extensive carnage and torture.

The story inspired Tchaikovsky to write some of his most penetrating, forward-looking music; conductor Gergiev made a particular point of spotlighting excursions into simultaneous tonalities and polyrhythms that Stravinsky is credited with introducing. If Mazeppa doesn't rewrite music history, it's because those innovations aren't sustained over long stretches.

Also, much of the opera's first act consists of composer and librettist obliging the operatic conventions of their time - such as a soprano-tenor love duet (even though the soprano's affections are elsewhere) and a lot of dance sequences. That music is only intermittently inspired, so you could forgive the stage pictures for being senselessly framed with symbolism-laden statues and having more gold lam than an Atlantic City floor show, from robes to the wheat bundles. Franco Zeffirelli's Turandot production, the previous standard for operatic extravagance, seems comparatively demure.

Maybe the overkill functioned to give the more superficial fans a sense of getting their money's worth before entering the opera's truly dark heart. Also, you knew the opulence would be in the past soon - isn't that usually the case in Russian history? - and maybe justifiably so, since the Met's corps of glitz-clad male dancers make fairly miserable Cossacks.

However, the central problem in the later acts is that stage director Yuri Alexandrov doesn't know when to let a good idea alone. A climactic beheading in Act II had much of the expected power, but immediately afterward, a large male silhouette at the rear of the stage erupted into a riot of lights worthy of a Broadway marquee.

Tchaikovsky's final scene is one of the best and creepiest in all of opera: Mazeppa has abandoned his hopelessly insane wife on the battlefield, where she ends the opera singing an eerie lullaby. Amid some atmospheric slide projections of scorched earth (by the formidable George Tsypin), she unpacked a bag full of severed body parts and assembled a scarecrow of sorts that was too comical to be poignant.

The singing still mattered somehow, and much of it was excellent. In the title role, Nikolai Putilin demonstrated much of the necessary authority, and unlike most Russian bass-baritones, had remarkably clean vocal production. As his nemesis/father-in-law, Paata Burchuladze had similar vocal virtues and was a more accomplished actor. Other principals - Olga Guryakova as the mad Maria and Oleg Balashov as her spurned suitor, Andrei - were solid Slavic voices, even if they weren't so theatrically adept. That quality wasn't so noticeable in years past, when Russian opera companies visited the United States with productions dating back to a pre-World War II performance style. In this production, singers and stage seem to come from different planets.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at 215-854-4907 or dstearns@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/davidpatrickstearns.

The Metropolitan Opera's production of "Mazeppa" is repeated Friday, Tuesday, and March 18, 22, 25, 27 and 30. Tickets: $27-175. Information: 212-362-6000 or www.metoperafamily.org.

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