Opera in three acts by Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky to a libretto by Victor Burenin, revised by the composer and with an Act 2 insert aria for the title character to words by Vasily Kandaurov, after Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin's poem Poltava; Moscow, Bol'shoy Theatre, 3/15 February 1884.
A simultaneous production by the Mariinsky Theatre had its first performance three days after the première. The Bol'shoy performance was conducted by Ippolit Al'tani, with Bogomir Korsov in the title role and Emiliya Pavlovskaya as Mariya; Eduard Nápravník conducted at St Petersburg, with Ippolit Pryanishnikov in the title role, Ivan Mel'nikov as Kochubey, Fyodor Stravinsky as Orlik and Mariya Kamenskaya as Lyubov’.Tchaikovsky's was the second opera to be based on Pushkin's poem about the notorious 17th‐century Ukrainian Cossack leader. (The first, by a noble dilettante named Boris Viettinghoff‐Schell, had been composed in 1858 and was performed the next year at the St Petersburg Bol'shoy Theatre.) Ivan Mazeppa sought independence from Russia through an alliance with Sweden, but was defeated at the Battle of Poltava. As the champion of a subject people he became a Romantic legend, hero or villain depending on attitudes to the Russian Empire. The libretto, meant originally for the cellist‐composer Karl Davïdov, largely ignores the historical and military circumstances. The operatic Mazeppa does his dirt on a personal rather than political plane. He surprises his friend Vasily Kochubey, a Cossack judge, by demanding the hand of the latter's daughter Mariya, with whom he has reached an understanding despite the vast difference in their ages. Andrey tells Mariya he loves her, but realizes that she does not reciprocate his feelings (Act 1 scene i). To avenge what he sees as a dishonouring theft, Kochubey, through the agency of Andrey, denounces Mazeppa's separatist scheme to the tsar (1.ii). Disbelieved, he is remanded by Peter to Mazeppa, who has him tortured and condemned.
Act 2 scene i consists of an extended prison monologue followed by an interrogation by Mazeppa's henchman Orlik, all based in large part on Pushkin's original verses. Act 2 scene ii is also based closely on the poem; after the interpolated Kandaurov aria, it consists of a scene in which Mazeppa hints to Mariya of his ambition and exacts from her a pledge of devotion, followed by one in which Kochubey's wife Lyubov' warns her daughter of the impending execution. In Act 2 scene iii, Kochubey and his friend Iskra are beheaded before a crowd, Mariya and Lyubov' arriving a heartbreaking instant too late to prevent the act.
In Act 3 Andrey makes an attempt on Mazeppa and is mortally wounded. Mazeppa, now in flight from the tsar, finds Mariya deranged and abandons her. Andrey dies in the arms of the crazed girl, who mistakes him for an infant and sings him a lullaby that brings the opera to a striking pianissimo conclusion.
While this plot has all the makings of a pompous historical spectacle along the lines of The Maid of Orléans, the composer chose to make Mazepa a more inward lyric drama. Only the execution scene is handled in the grand manner, replete with military music. Elsewhere, heavy emphasis is placed on an unhappy romantic intrigue that was in part fabricated ad hoc: Andrey, the young Cossack lad in love with Mariya, has no counterpart in Pushkin. The quiet ending was in fact a brilliant second thought, replacing a more conventional finale published in the original vocal score in which Mariya met an Ophelia‐like end accompanied by a chorus of horrified onlookers. Another such second thought was Mazeppa's Act 2 aria, in which he leaves no doubt that for all his amorality his love for Mariya is sincere.