The last time anything called "Mazeppa" was performed at the Metropolitan Opera was in 1894, when listeners heard a Franz Liszt tone poem of the same name. As for the Tchaikovsky opera, it didn't receive its official Met debut until Monday evening, when it took the stage under the watchful ear of the Kirov's Valery Gergiev.
This "Mazeppa" is a bit of a problem play, Inspired by Pushkin, it is the portrait of a 17th-century Ukrainian separatist. If you're Russian, you see him as a criminal reprobate; if you're Ukrainian, then you think of Mazeppa as a patriot. Either way, enough time has passed since the era of Peter the Great that modern audiences need not take sides.
This co-production of the Kirov and Metropolitan Operas is certainly an attention-grabber. Taking place on a steeply slanted stage, it reminded me of those Soviet-era theatrical pieces that exhibited the government's fascination with the cultural identities of each of the republics. This Yuri Alexandrov effort begins with young girls embracing large sheaves of wheat right out of the collective farm. George Tsypin's sets include such devices as a flying torture chamber and the dangling undersides of beheaded bodies. And Gleb Filshtinsky's lighting changes so often that the cumulative effect is simply numbing.
There is a lot of pageantry in this production. The dancers and supernumeraries - dressed by costume designer Tatiana Noginova in either gold foil or outfits straight out of Flash Gordon movies - have a lot to do. There are sword fights, kazatskies, scenes de ballet, crouching-tiger pole battles, merciless whippings (for which they don crimson costumes), a snowstorm, and a decapitation wherein the head of the paterfamilias is bounced the entire length of that slanted set and caught with the agility of a soccer goalie by our heroine, Maria. (If she had missed, the noggin might have ended up in the bell of the tuba.)
All that was missing were the Rockettes. In fact, a patron could watch this entire show and never once be distracted by the music. But on this evening, the Met audience received not only a good floor show but a fine opera and a fully fleshed-out orchestral tone poem by Tchaikovsky.
Mr. Gergiev conducted a solid, if unremarkable, realization of the piece. Seeming much more attuned to the lyrical side, he invested considerable effort into the undeniably beautiful passages of the opera. But while the fi nal act is lovely and gentle, much of this work depends on crashing moments of febrile intensity, and here Maestro was profligate with the fabulous Met orchestra, which did not have its best night of the season.
The "Battle of Poltava" is written in "1812 Overture" style and serves as the "symphonic prelude" to the last act. Its performance emphasized Mr. Gergiev's lack of snap or bite on this occasion. All was a bit boxy and metronomical. But at least the curtain was closed for a while.
These Kirov stars gave us an informed reading - this is, after all, the company that produced Anna Netrebko and Olga Borodina. Nikolai Putilin offered a suitably conflicted Mazeppa but suffered many lapses of pitch control. Paata Burchuladze was better as Kochubei, the father who loses his head. But the best of the lower voices belonged to a rather minor character: Denis Sedov was much more in character as the evil Orlik, a role originally created in St. Petersburg by Fyodor Stravinsky, the composer's father. Oleg Balashov's emasculated Andrei was a bit weak and whiny, but this may very well have been his characterization. Like Verdi's Don Carlo, one cannot exhibit too much strength or self-confidence in the part of Andrei, for fear of betraying the drama.
With so much testosterone on that stage, it was ironic that the two best performances were those of the women. Olga Guryakova had a slow start as Maria and a bad case of the flats in the second act, but rebounded to shine in the mad final scene. And Larissa Diadkova as the mother was a lioness trying to save her cub, plumbing the subterranean depths of her rich mezzo range with great artistry.
So this is the future of the Metropolitan Opera, at least according to the pronouncements on high from Peter Gelb. Going forward, the emphasis will be on new European productions, which, as a group, have had a rather spotty record for the past 20 years or so.
Oh, and if the music is good, well, that's nice too.
"Mazeppa" will be performed again on March 10, 14, 18, 22, 25, 27 & 30 at the Metropolitan Opera House (Lincoln Center, 212-362-6000).