Mazeppa, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

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No young director could get away with a production as “classical” as this. It would be reckoned an interpretative cop-out. Tchaikovsky’s tragedy of love and politics visits Edinburgh courtesy of the Opéra National de Lyon, for whom Peter Stein is staging a Tchaikovsky/Pushkin trilogy. His view of the work is as straightforward as any traditionalist could want. The costumes are historical, the settings quietly evocative. The question is: Does such simplicity achieve the same communicative purchase as a more obviously interventionist approach?

It has long been recognised that Stein treads a more respectful route in opera than in spoken theatre. This Mazeppa, designed by Ferdinand Wögerbauer and Anna Maria Heinreich, looks pretty – and pretty expensive, with plenty of set changes. But I was not moved by Stein’s kid-glove approach, whereas I was by the Mariinsky’s old-fashioned production and by Welsh National Opera’s recent updating. Ultimately, being moved is what theatre – especially Tchaikovsky’s theatre – is all about. I have a lot of respect for Stein, but I no longer believe a work such as this is best served by faux-naif treatment. It turns the opera into an curated artefact, not an expression of feelings for an audience of today.

Stein’s approach worked best in the successive Act Two soliloquies for Kochubey and Mazeppa, where Tchaikovsky has one singer holding the stage. The choruses were stiff and the execution scene lacked focus, partly because of two horses: has Stein never learned that animals in opera are a fantasy-killer? As for the music, some key emphases were blurred by the conductor, Kirill Petrenko, who nevertheless drew superlative playing.

The ultimate tribute to Stein – here making his final visit to Edinburgh – is that the (mostly Russian) cast is all-of-a-piece. Wojtek Drabowicz’s Mazeppa exemplifies the ruthless political climber, and finds a match, vocally and histrionically, in Anatoli Kotscherga’s patriarchal Kochubey. Anna Samuil’s Maria is a touch pallid, to the detriment of her closing lullaby. Mariana Tarasova’s superb Lyubov gets better on every hearing. ★★★☆☆
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