Cri de Coeur

Tchaikovsky's epic nationalist drama Mazeppa has its Met broadcast premiere this month. Does the opera offer clues about its composer's own dark nights of the soul? GRANT HAYTER-MENZIES looks at the evidence.

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Tchaikovsky, whose opera Mazeppa reflects his own turbulent emotional life
Public Domain via Wikipedia
The Mazepa myth's mélange of fact and fiction played right into Tchaikovsky's method of working out his own secret traumas.
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Tatiana Pavlovskaya and Victor Chernomortsev as Maria and Mazeppa from the Kirov's 1998 production
© Beth Bergman 2006
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The Cossack Hetman, Ivan Mazepa
Public Domain via Wikipedia
Mazeppa is, paradoxically, an opera rich with utter loss: a father loses a daughter, then his life; a woman loses her lover, then her reason; a patriot loses his country and the woman for whom he risked everything. Basing his text on Pushkin's über-Russian poem Poltava, Tchaikovsky's librettist Victor Burenin didn't shrink from any opportunity to shortchange Ukraine's revered Cossack governor. While it is true that Ivan Mazepa (to use the proper Ukrainian spelling) made a deal with Russia's perennial enemy, Sweden, to achieve Ukrainian independence from Russia (this despite having been an erstwhile ally and favorite of Peter the Great) and fought with the Swedes against Russia in 1708, he bore few of the garish colors lavished on him by everyone from Voltaire to Pushkin. A nobleman's son, bred amid the European elegance of the Polish royal court, Mazepa was, contrary to Russian polemic, no savage from the steppes. After his rise to power in the 1690s, he founded schools and endowed churches, even lending to Ukrainian architecture a style known as "Mazepa Baroque" - hardly the legacy of a brute.

Mazepa's losses in the spheres of poetry and politics are, in this opera, very much Tchaikovsky's gain. The composer's musical output was criticized even in his own day on a variety of points: that it was syrupy, shallow, pandering to the Tsarist order and too intertwined with the composer's rollercoaster emotional states to satisfy a welter of often cold-blooded standards. But the starkly beautiful realism of his Mazeppa score cannot be denied. Indeed, this uncharacteristically brutal work marks what Richard Taruskin has called the composer's "undisputed ascendancy among Russian composers" - a watershed that looks toward Tchaikovsky's most searing creation, the autobiographical Symphony No. 6 ("Pathétique"). (In that work, as in Mazeppa, the horns seem cast as clarions of an inescapable fate.) Thus, despite its anti-Mazepa libretto, to which Tchaikovsky made as many alterations as were allowed in the Tsarist police-state of the day, he wove around the conflicted figure of the hetman music of piercing emotion, muscular descriptiveness and bold abstraction. He also performed a feat unusual for so private a personality: self-examination through the medium of public creativity.

Mazeppa is in a very real way Tchaikovsky's "coming out," both as a serious dramatic composer and as a homosexual man courageously exploring all the depths of his own secret nature. Yet though it tells us so much about its creator, the opera itself lacks the sense of intimacy we have come to expect from Tchaikovsky. The reason for this seems clear. If the masterwork that preceded Mazeppa, EugeneOnegin, is Tchaikovsky's La Traviata, Mazeppa is his Don Carlo - intimate drawing-room tragedy as opposed to human pathos splashed across the vast canvas of political history. That Tchaikovsky claimed to have wept and trembled while composing Onegin is easy to believe, even as it is not difficult to imagine him composing Mazeppa dry-eyed and with set jaw, gazing out across the endless vistas of Ukraine's plains and plateaux as he pondered not the pastel romance of the ballroom but the matters of ultimate concern that grip every human soul.

Mazeppa at Met
At Kotschubey's house, folk dancers, above, perform a hopak in honor of Mazeppa
© Beth Bergman 2006

Simon Karlinsky describes Ukraine as "Russia's Scotland," and the region certainly acted on Tchaikovsky the way the Highlands did for Donizetti, Marschner and Mendelssohn. Romance in a haunted, politically-contested, passionately nationalistic landscape - what could be more operatic? The weird tales of Ukrainian Nikolai Gogol traded heavily on the mystery, intrigue and violence of this earliest of Russia's princedoms, a seat of medieval culture destroyed by invading Mongols. Others found in the region's people a symbol of defiance against autocracy, a celebration of the natural in the face of the artificial. It was while a guest at Kamenka, the estate of his wealthy sister near Kiev, that Tchaikovsky composed many of his most deeply felt works, including Mazeppa. There he could immerse himself not just in the region's stormy past but in its present of folksong-crooning peasants. The heterophonic nature of traditional Ukrainian music, in which a single melody is handed out among several vocal parts, which in turn serve as backdrop to a vocal solo embedded among them, lends itself perfectly to post-Wagnerian, leitmotif-laden opera. Like the lead singer in a gospel choir, the solo voice determines rhythms and melodic shape for the rest - a structure that seems to have guided Tchaikovsky's ideas for Mazeppa and given him the propulsive dramatic thrust he needed.

Ukraine was all these things for Tchaikovsky, and something more: it was the backdrop to the great love of his life. At Kamenka, Tchaikovsky fell in love with his charming but unstable gay nephew, Vladimir "Bob" Lvovich Davydov (twelve years old when Mazeppa had its double premiere in St. Petersburg and Moscow), forever binding together in the composer's mind the beauties of the Ukrainian countryside with the tortures of an impossible love. Though sticking close to the tried and true templates of traditional opera structure - arias, duets, ensembles - Tchaikovsky always managed to cut through the underbrush of convention to zero in on his plot's love interest. His creativity and his willingness to push his own musical boundaries truly take wing with spectacular effect in Mazeppa. The composition of the opera began with the Act II duet between the hetman and Maria (based on real letters exchanged by the pair). Can it be off-base to assume it was fantasies of Bob - the composer's predilection for young men being well-known - that inspired the gripping immediacy of the fatherly Mazepa's passion for the teenage Maria Kochubei and the palpable excitement of such passion being returned?

Myth and reality stepped a slow village dance in Tchaikovsky's Ukraine: the legend of Mazepa's drastic punishment by a cuckolded husband - tied naked to a wild horse's back and sent off to the steppes to die - is pure fiction, as is Mazepa's rescue by gentle Ukrainian farmers. Far from the colorful fate assigned to her by Pushkin, Maria Kochubei was actually sent back to her father by Mazepa and ended her days a nun. But here fiction perfectly served the reality of Tchaikovsky's creative needs. Even as Mazepa's wild ride offered symbolic inspiration for post-eighteenth-century notions of freedom through struggle, the Mazepa myth's mélange of fact and fiction played right into Tchaikovsky's method of working out his own secret traumas on the brightly lit stage of the symphony hall and opera theater. In Tchaikovsky's hands, Mazeppa becomes very much a cri de coeur, a dramatized confession of a love that strays outside the rules, as Tchaikovsky knew it and struggled with it all his life.

Mazeppa Image 2
The Kirov production of Mazeppa, presented at the Met in May 1998
© Beatriz Schiller 2006

How important this issue was for the composer is obvious from the way he chose to open the opera, with a stormy overture that mirrors the gathering momentum of Mazepa's spiral into the secret erotic urge that ultimately seals his public political fate. During entertainments in the hetman's honor at the estate of the noble Kochubei, Mazepa arouses consternation by asking his host for the hand of his young daughter, Maria. Aghast as late-nineteenth-century audiences may have been at this prospect, old husband--young wife pairings were as common as toothaches in the seventeenth century, especially when the suitor was as powerful as Mazepa. Kochubei, however, seems to symbolize rigid societal expectations writ large. Like a Victorian paterfamilias, he refuses to give up his daughter to a man so much older than she. Maria does not improve matters by overriding her father's refusal. She has been in love - almost madly in love - with Mazepa for some time. As she sings earlier in the act, while pondering her passion for the hetman, "I love everything about him, everything about him," an admission that would be thrilling if directed toward a young lover; toward Mazepa, Maria's godfather, it conjures concern at best. Her unusual obsession is made the more vivid when a tenor swain named Andrei confesses his long-standing love for her, only to be told he cannot compare with Mazepa and sent away in tears.

Enraged by Kochubei's insults, Mazepa demands that Maria choose between him and her father, between her shocking passion and duty to her family. Before Act I even ends, we have reached the crux of the opera - and perhaps that of the composer's own personal battle. Maria turns her back on all the rules, familial and otherwise, and, like Tchaikovsky, who had made an unsuccessful attempt at heterosexual marriage in 1877 that lasted less than three months, gives herself over to her lawless love. The thrill of admission is there when Maria announces, "Tvoyá!" (I am yours!). The phrase is ecstatic, even as the fear of having gone dangerously beyond proper bounds seems embodied in the Tristanesque dissonances of the orchestra. When crossing the bridge to the pain and pleasure of forbidden love, Tchaikovsky seems to tell us, there can be no turning back.

Mazeppa
has sometimes been described as Tchaikovsky's effort at Meyerbeerian spectacle (as was the case with his unsuccessful The Maid of Orleans, which immediately preceded it), and much of the score bears this out. In what may have been an effort to focus the inner drama of duets and solos, and perhaps to echo Maria's own confusion, Tchaikovsky scores much of the revelation scene of Act I for full crowd-scene ensemble. Mazeppa's six scenes, spread across three acts, are arranged in the received order of conventional opera. But there is nothing workaday about Tchaikovsky's orchestration. The conductor of the Petersburg premiere, Eduard Napravnik, is on record as wondering just where Tchaikovsky would find all the orchestral colors necessary to do justice to such larger-than-life drama. He need not have worried. Mazeppa's is the color palette of the Symphony No. 6, of the A-minor Piano Trio, the haunting darkness that permeates the score of Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky's balletic take on the tragedy of impossible love. It is an atmosphere of darkness versus light, of the glinting through shadow of unnamed fears. It is the sound of storms and the thud of a racing heart: the ear scarcely has time to stop and breathe, pushed ever forward on a flood tide of conflicting desires, naked passions and the pitiless march of politics. Through it all runs the love of an old man for the young woman who gave up everything for him, an unconditional love the composer never really found, except from his many faceless admirers in concert hall and opera house.

In his 1974 study The Mazeppa Legend in European Romanticism, Hubert F. Babinski outlines a Mazepa who is, much like the real hetman, a little something for everyone, particularly crucial to Romantic-period artists in search of an embodiment of "their artistic anguish and aspirations." But it is perhaps that seminal event of Mazepa's mythos - the dash into the steppes strapped naked to a wild horse - that resounded most intensely with Tchaikovsky. By trying to fit into traditional society, the composer had been suicidally bound to the bucking bronco of public disapproval. His own honesty rescued him, when he decided after his abortive 1877 marriage that, however painful the gossip his homosexuality aroused, he was born to love men. Did Tchaikovsky see himself, as his fellow self-dramatizer Byron saw Mazepa, as a sort of nineteenth-century equivalent of the "Noble Outlaw" of Russia, intrepidly semaphoring his sexuality through the medium of music? As the composer wrote to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck, shortly after Mazeppa's premiere, "Opera and opera alone makes you friends with the people … the property not merely of separate little circles but - with luck - of the whole nation." In Mazeppa, Tchaikovsky bares not just soul and genius but an equal portion of courage.

GRANT HAYTER-MENZIES lives in Victoria, B.C., where he writes about classical music and opera, and has completed the first biography of American theater and film star Charlotte Greenwood.

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Current Issue: April 2014 — VOL. 78, NO. 10