Kirill Petrenko conducts “Mazeppa”

Love, power, intrigue: Tchaikovsky’s gripping political thriller

What is “Mazeppa” about? Members of the Berliner Philharmoniker sum up the opera plot.

Kirill Petrenko is realising one of his dream projects: the performance of Tchaikovsky’s opera Mazeppa, which the conductor describes as a “stunning work whose plot is more topical than ever”. On 14 November 2021, the Berliner Philharmoniker will present a concert performance of the love and political drama about a Cossack leader at the time of Tsar Peter I with renowned singers.

The opera tells the story of the historical figure of the Ukrainian Cossack captain Mazeppa and his rebellion against the Russian Tsar Peter I, with political and private intrigue, and a love that is betrayed. “The piece is a political psychological thriller with super-dramatic scenes,” says Olga Peretyatko enthusiastically. The soprano takes on the role of Marie, Mazeppa’s lover, alongside baritone Vladislav Sulimsky, who sings the title role.

Love between the front lines

The plot of this gripping piece, 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 present-day 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 opposition. Her father learns that Mazeppa has secretly defected to the Swedes and denounces the betrayal.

Mazeppa then has his father-in-law arrested and executed, but is defeated in the decisive battle of Poltava, which Tchaikovsky depicts in an orchestral interlude. The quiet finale of this musical history painting is unusual and moving, with a great love duet and gripping dungeon scenes among the highlights: Maria, who has gone insane, sings a lullaby over the corpse of her childhood friend.