A Rarely Heard Tchaikovsky Opera Has Its Spanish Premiere in Oviedo

SpainSpain Tchaikovsky: Mazeppa, Orchestra Principado de Asturias, Coro Ópera Oviedo, Rossen Milanov (conductor), Teatro Campoamor, Oviedo, 17.9.2016. (JMI)

Mazeppa. Courtesy of Opera Oviedo.
Mazeppa (c) Opera Oviedo.

Mazeppa – Vladimir Sulimsky
Maria – Dinara Alieva
Kochubei – Vitalij Kowaljow
Andrei – Víktor Antipenko
Liubov – Elena Bocharova
Drunken Cossack – Francisco Vas
Orlik – Mikhail Timoshenko
Iskra – Vicent Romero

Direction – Tatjana Gürbaca
Sets and Lighting – Klaus Grünberg
Costumes – Marc Weeger and Silke Willrett

Oviedo has a policy of including one little-known opera in its program each season, and chose to inaugurate this new season with Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa. In fact, this is the premiere of Mazeppa in Spain. There’s no doubt that rarity is an attraction for the opera lover, but the disadvantage is that the box office suffers, as happened on this occasion. Let’s hope that any negative economic impact will not force Oviedo to go back to just the standard repertoire.

There’s not much choice when it comes to stage productions of Mazeppa, as it is seldom performed outside Russia. Oviedo decided to offer one of the few productions that has been done in recent years in Western Europe: the staging by Tatjana Gürbaca which premiered in Antwerp seven years ago and could be seen the following year in Bremen. This is a true minimalist production which certainly must have had a positive effect on the overall cost.

The action is brought up to modern times, which is a problem in an opera like this. Mazepa is an historical figure (1639-1709), and in principle the change of time should not matter: it’s the story of an ambitious politician fighting for his country’s independence, and both aspects are timeless. The problem is that the protagonists’ personal conflict can be understood in the historical context, but it’s pretty removed from any modern reality. Today, a daughter’s decision to marry a man disliked by her family seldom results in such hatred and persecution.

Basically, there are no sets apart from some curtains, and props create the atmosphere for the different scenes. There is an empty open space for the outside of the Kochubei house, while Mazeppa’s palace exists at the front of the stage before a curtain. The strangest thing is the scene of Kochubei’s execution, which clearly requires an outside environment but instead takes place in a restaurant. Something of the same happens when Mazeppa stabs Andrei, who is supposedly dead; some 20 minutes later we find him alive and about to die in the arms of his beloved, and now demented, Maria. In short, it is a modern production with little visual interest, although it can be effective at times.

The musical direction was in the hands of Rossen Milanov at the front of his Symphony Orchestra of Asturias. His conducting seemed to me fairly routine during the first part of the opera, although it gained in intensity during the second. I expected more from his work with the orchestra, but the sound coming from the pit left much to be desired. As for the chorus, the women were remarkably better than the men.

Mazeppa was sung by Belarussian baritone Vladimir Sulimsky, He is an important baritone and well-suited to the character, but he has a tendency to hold back. The least convincing part of his singing is the shortage of colours and a certain impersonality.

Soprano Dinara Alieva was unconvincing as Maria. Her voice has a certain appeal in the middle but is a little tight at the top, and her singing can seem rather impersonal and monotonous.

Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow was quite good in the character of Kochubei, the enemy of Mazepa and father of Maria. His attractive voice and elegant presence are appropriate to the character.

The performance of tenor Viktor Antipenko as Andrei was a pleasant surprise. He is much more comfortable in this sort of opera than in the Italian repertoire, and he offered a good spinto tenor with emotion in his singing.

Mezzo-soprano Elena Bocharova was a modest Liubov.

In the secondary characters, Francisco Vas was good in the scene of the Drunken Cossack. Mikhail Timoshenko as Orlik and Vincent Romero as Iskra were serviceable in their roles.

José M. Irurzun

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