Let me be the second (of people sur les internets at least) to applaud the Met for turning in a stunner with the house debut of Tchaikovsky's Mazeppa last night.
It should be noted that both opera and production take an Act to really get warmed up. There's a considerable amount of exposition to take care of, and also funny hair pieces to come to terms with, and, while enjoyable enough, the overall impression is neither here nor there. There's also the requisite "cossack feast dance" number which is about exactly as entertaining as you're thinking. It is done in super shiny gold Hammer pants, but they don't help that much.
That said, from the Act II curtain on, the show takes off and never looks back. The hour and a half or so of the Second Act is tightly constructed opera goodness of the highest order, while Act III is shivery and haunting and stays with you for a long time. It's the kind of story which only the Russians really do right--the ruthless excercise of power, descents into madness, an unflinching pessimism about the human condition--and all driven by Tchaikovsky's riveting, endlessly inventive score. Highlights include an off the hook extended aria for Mazeppa in Act II (the splendid Nikolai Putilin); more or less every time Olga Guryakova opens her mouth, but especially her sweet insane lullaby in Act III; and a fantastic chorus number opening the third scene of the second Act--the scene culminating in a finale which left me literally slack jawed. Miss this, and you are simply forsaking one of the most hair raising moments of the season.
And no doubt that hanging jaw owes a lot to this tour de force production by Yuri Alexandrov, with sets by George Tsypin. As mentioned before, the first Act has some missteps, but the other two compensate for that in spades. The design here has a logic of its own that one might be inclined to resist at first. Everything is over the top, the connections are often dim, the colors are impetuous and sometimes maddening, the textures veer wildly between the opulent and the cheap...did I mention we're in Russia? Exactly. This is stagecraft that smuggles itself piece by piece into your brain then suddenly congeals and steps on all your neurons at once.
The big weak link of the cast was tenor Oleg Balashov, who redeemed himself un peux in the end, but just couldn't pull it together for the most part.
Back to the praise tho--not that I have much for comparison, but I thought Gergiev did a splendid job in the pit, pulling all the crazy outsized drama and pinpoint articulation to be had from the vast varied score. Shout out to the full Met brass complement, who crowded into the pit for the barn-burner "Battle of Poltava" prelude to the third act.
Methinks the only real questions remaining are A) why the hell did this take so long to get produced and B) when are your tickets?
Update: Jeez. Well apparently the production (tho not the performance) didn't go over so well in other, if not most, quarters. Sieglinde, Tommasini, the Philly Inquirer, and the Sun all take turns busting on Alexandrov/Tsypin. (On a different note, one Vivien Schweitzer at Bloomberg opines that now that New York has finally seen this long-neglected masterpiece, the Met really ought to think about cutting it due to the many empty seats in that third act. Riiight...OK...don't you have a bond market to cover or something ?)
I'll reiterate that the first act, which seems to be coming in for the lion's share of demerits, had its problems, and would agree that Tsypin is very possibly suffering from a case of acute scrim use disorder (ASUD). But on the whole, I maintain this is a legitimate reimagining that never conflicts with the opera's intent. Plus, it makes some bona fide big theatrical gambles work in the opera house, without distracting from the flow of the performance (except for maybe the too noisy snow)--not easy to do.
Oh, and just a note to R&J--don't you worry about Tommasini calling this 'intergalactic'. You're still the hands down front runner for best 2005-2006 operatic salute to Carl Sagan. And no cossack in a mylar miniskirt is goining to take that away from you.