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by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
La Scala (Milan) La Scala Orchestra;
Mstislav Rostropovich, conductor

Performers listed below.

Opera composers have always been big on history. Historical figures from Anne Bolyn, Lucrezia Borgia and Mary Queen of Scots, to Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X and Richard Nixon have all become the title characters of operas. Mind you, whether these characters in any way resemble their historical namesakes is up for grabs. But in opera, that's never seemed to matter much. The key is in the telling, not in the history.

Still, a compelling figure needs the least embellishment - especially if that figure has a colorful story. So, given their bigger-than-life country, with its long and storied history, it's little wonder that Russian composers have relied on historical drama perhaps more than any others. Borodin wrote about Prince Igor. Mussorgsky had Boris Godunov and the Khovanschins. Rimsky-Korsakov had Ivan the Terrible, and Glinka had his "Life for the Tsar." And even Tchaikovsky, maybe the least nationalistic of Russian Romantic composers, paid tribute to his country's history with this week's opera, MAZEPPA.

That title character, Ivan Stepanovich Mazeppa, was either a valiant and idealistic leader, a reprehensible traitor, or something in between; it depends on who's doing the telling. In fact, he was a Ukrainian leader who tangled with Peter the Great in an attempt to win Ukrainian independence - and lost, winding up in exile.

In Tchaikovsky's version of his story, Mazeppa is all that, as well as a red-hot lover. This is, after all, an opera. The trouble is, after this crusty old warrior marries the adoring young woman of his dreams, he proceeds to have her father killed. He couldn't help it. Really. This drives his new wife crazy - literally - and the once-heroic Mazeppa winds up riding off into the Ukrainian sunset, lonely and defeated.

Is all this historically accurate? Well, probably not; Tchaikovsky may deserve a "D" in history. But we'll give him an "A" in opera. Hear for yourself this week on NPR WORLD OF OPERA, with Steve Curwood, in a production from IL TEATRO ALLA SCALA, in Milan.

La Scala (Milan) La Scala Orchestra; Mstislav Rostropovich, conductor; Olga Guriakova, soprano (Maria); Badri Maisuradze, tenor (Andrei); Viktor Lutzuk (Andrei); Alfred Muff, bass-baritone, (Mazeppa); Tatiana Gorbunova, mezzo-soprano (Lyubov); Anatoly Kocherga, bass (Kochubey)


  • La Scala
  • AT THE OPERA, from NPR

    Coming Up:
    L‘Ercole Amante (Hercules in Love) by Francesco Cavalli.
    Boston Early Music Festival.
    Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, Music Directors.

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