Alexander Pushkin’s towering position in Russian cultural history is indicated by the fact that almost all of the country’s major composers – from Mikhail Glinka to Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff – created stage works based on texts by the poet. Chief conductor Kirill Petrenko, the Berliner Philharmoniker and a renowned ensemble of singers present Mazeppa, the second of Tchaikovsky’s three Pushkin operas.
The plot of this thrilling stage work, first performed in 1884, is set in the time of Peter the Great. The background to the dramatic love story is the conflict between Russia and Sweden over the territory of today’s Ukraine. The ageing general Mazeppa has fallen in love with the young Maria, daughter of a Cossack allied with the Russians, and married her against her father’s wishes. The latter has learned that Mazeppa has secretly defected to the Swedes and denounces the betrayal; Mazeppa then has his father-in-law arrested and executed. Finally, he himself is defeated in the decisive battle of Poltava, which Tchaikovsky depicts in an orchestral interlude.
The finale of this historical drama is both unusual and moving, with a great love duet and dungeon scenes among the musical highlights: Maria, who has gone insane, sings a lullaby over the corpse of her childhood friend, who she abandoned for Mazeppa.