Mazeppa, Mazeppa, Mazeppa...say it once and there's music playing. Oh. There actually is music playing. Nevermind.
I have to really crank this out because I refuse to be beaten to the punchline on one hilarious moment in an otherwise pretty beautiful production of a rather riveting opera. See the thing is...did you listen to the opera quiz I guess it was last week? They were talking about names that got changed in for instance German productions of Butterfly, where apparently Pinkerton would be [if I'm reading between the lines correctly] like the equivalent of being named Benjamin Franklin "Penis" Wankerboy. And not that anyone ever puts on Mazeppa, because they're busy putting on crap like Forza instead, but if they did, I'd like to suggest they make up a title if possible, but eliminate from their Met Titles the word "hetman." It just gets funnier each time it pops up on that little screen. "I once was hetman," said one screen, calling to mind some kind of imaginary ex-straight ministry's rewriting of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."
So anyway a New York audience gave a warm though not altogether rapturous reception to the Metropolitan Opera's premiere of Chaikovsky's Mazeppa, if you hadn't gathered already that was what I was going to write about. Bear in mind this was a Monday night performance without the courtesy of a 7:30 curtain and perhaps this accounts for the lack of hysteria.
I'm a tiny bit reluctant to judge voices from side orch "I have Friends Under 30 Who are Willing to Score me these Seats" seats, as one is in a sort of echo chamber. Naturally, the preceeding sentence is purely formulaic language, and I'm going to judge them all to hell and gone.
But first the production, which I hear got some boos from the schmancy seats. I think the thing about George Tsypin is he has this knockout combination of a dark, crazy, out of control side combined with a childlike sense of wonder. Now, bear in mind, there's nothing I find so distasteful and generally emetic as a childlike sense of wonder, except when you combine that with the other part, it all works out. The tableau at the end of the second act is for my betters to describe. 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.
It didn't hurt that in the foreground, Olga Guryakova was running around in circles with a severed head in her hands, while Larissa Diadkova fainted, stage left. Larissa Diadkova is a virtuoso fainter, and that's the truth. She's also, as you know if you saw her Azucena or Fricka, an all around fine actress with a voice that isn't quite luxuriant on its purely sonic merits, but is always wielded intelligently, sometimes daringly. It's strange to think what a cypher she was as Herodias, when everything else I've heard her sing has been uniformly top drawer. I wonder what that was about. Eh. Don't care.
Her Act II scena with Guryakova must surely have been the vocal highlight of the evening. Guryakova is an extremely game and appealing singer with a top that sounds to me like by no means a sure bet, but when it gets there, you know it. The vocal production is unabashedly Slavic, and I for one couldn't be happier about it. And I suspect she's Opera Khot, though I left my binocs back at the palazzo.
Oh wait but back to the production. Can I be king of the world for a minute and make a new rule where I get a dollar for every minute the fucking scrim is down? Generally, this is distracting. Here it was actually very actively a problem in places--you couldn't see, for instance, that Kochubei's head was covered in blood from a long day of torture until about fifteen minutes after Lyubov more or less had kittens about it. And you couldn't see her rather gorgeous opalescent purple dress until the curtain call. It's Kochubei, right? I keep wanting to type Kochujang, but that's actually a fermented red pepper paste indispensible in Korean cuisine. Delicious, seriously, but not relevant even by my standards.
The fantastic costumes were designed by one Tatiana Noginova, herself working a sort of Bettie Boop look, at her curtain call. At the Millo Pole, Dawn Fatale was heard to remark of Noginova's get-ups for the ballet in the first act how lovely it was that they got their costumes at Fredericks of Vladivostok. Why Dawn doesn't blog is a mystery to me, helpless as I always am rendered by her wit.
Wait, there were boys in this opera.
Putilin makes the logical first choice of subject; it's just that I haven't made up my mind about him. It's a long, tough sing and he poured himself into it, even doing an "Anything Karita Mattila can do, I can do lower" number where he sang, flat on his back, with his head hanging backward over a step, just like KM did in her Salome. Points were awarded. Still, there were mishaps, the voice losing its lustre at climactic moments and also in soft ones. It's not like I have a lot of Mazzep to compare him to, but I can hear, in that center of my brain that is assigned to "fantasy football" in straight guys, a baritone I'd like better. He sounds like the love child of Tita Ruffo and Pavel Lisitsian.
The venerable Paata Burchuladze, I had heard from reliable sources, is sounding sometimes lousy these days, but not here. You wouldn't mistake him for a young singer, but the goods are still there, which is a phrase I'm afraid I'm overusing lately. It is after all nice being a bass: the important part of your voice ages but generally doesn't break. Depending on your tolerance for wobble, your mileage may vary, but I didn't find myself lunging for the dramamine.
The only real weakness in this cast was Balashov as Andrei and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day. (Did you have that book as a kid? That boy had nothing on our Andrei.) Balashov's strengths don't justify his weaknesses, I'm afraid: if the voice were one of those Galuzinoid monsters, we'd forgive the sliding up to pitch and the sliding almost up to pitch and such. It ain't/we don't.
Really I ought to say something about the score, since it's so unfamiliar to most of us, but for the most part I'd like to leave that to folks like Alex Ross, both Aleces in fact (it pluralizes like matrix, I'm assuming) who know what the hell they're talking about. All I can offer are vague impressions of surprise and delight that the composer whose operatic output I had imagined to be typified by Evgenii Onegin, a wonderful but relatively polite work, has a much darker range on his palette. Onegin is, yes, also a lot tighter, but Mazeppa succeeds on different territory altogether. It's tempting now to think of Chaikovski/Pushkin as one of those Mozart/DaPonte, Strauss/von Hoffmansthal pairings, albeit not a living collaboration. Hang on, though. I'm forgetting about Pikovaia Dama, whose libretto is a total abortion. Anyway the point is Chaikovsky's range of expression is perhaps equal to Pushkin's own.
So, yeah, this is pretty much another run-don't-walk though I think my companions were even more enthusiastic. I'm not kidding--I'm a deeply negative person, ask anyone. I'm just finding a lot to recommend this season.
Next up: actually I have no idea. You'll know when I know.
p.s. thanks to "linguitte3" who linked me on a NY Times discussion forum. Really, though, linguitte3, I am excited; I just have a way of talking, I'm afraid! I don't visibly lose my shit unless...well, cf. my Podles review.