Bringing The World Home To You

© 2024 WUNC North Carolina Public Radio
120 Friday Center Dr
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
919.445.9150 | 800.962.9862
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Perilous Passion: Tchaikovsky's 'Mazeppa'

In 1965, director David Lean came up with a movie that's essentially a three-hour flashback, recounting a bittersweet romance frustrated by political complexities during Russia's October Revolution. And while that formula may not seem like the stuff of a Hollywood blockbuster, that's exactly what the film was. Lean's Doctor Zhivago was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and won five.

In fact, the film's runaway success may not be all that surprising. Epic stories of troubled times in Russian history have been a winning formula for a long time. There were the astonishing, early 20th-century films of Sergei Eisenstein, such as The Battleship Potemkin and Ivan the Terrible. In the 19th century, opera houses staged sprawling, Russian epics such as Mussorgsky's dark psychodrama Boris Godunov and Borodin's spectacular Prince Igor.

Then there's the long tradition of historical epics in Russian literature, which inspired many of those films and operas. Doctor Zhivago was based on a novel by Boris Pasternak. Mussorgsky's Boris had roots in a tragedy by Alexander Pushkin. And it was another work by Pushkin that inspired Tchaikovsky's intense drama Mazeppa — another story of romance disrupted by violent events in Russian history.

Tchaikovsky's opera, and the poem by Pushkin that inspired it, are both based on a real life historical figure. Ivan Mazeppa was an influential leader early in the 1700s. He was the "hetman," or military ruler, of a Cossack people in what is now the western part of Ukraine.

Early in the 1700s, Mazeppa struck an alliance with King Charles of Sweden, and led a Ukrainian revolt against the Russian czar, Peter the Great. Whether Mazeppa was a heroic patriot or a notorious traitor depends on your point of view — and that dispute also plays a role in the opera. In any case, Mazeppa's ploy backfired. He was defeated by the Russians at the historic battle of Poltava, from which Pushkin's poem takes its name.

Both the poem and the opera also feature another, more personal event in Mazeppa's life: a decidedly operatic, May-December romance between the elderly Cossack general and Mariya, the young daughter of a man Mazeppa condemns to death.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone Tchaikovsky's blockbuster from the Flemish Opera in Antwerp, with bass Nikolai Putilin in the title role and soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya as Mariya.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

More Stories