Tchaikovsky's historical opera Mazeppa - about the ruthless nationalist leader whose bid for Ukrainian separatism ended with his defeat by the Russians at the Battle of Poltava in 1709 - seems to be creeping up behind Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades in the popularity stakes. Earlier this year, Welsh National Opera toured it in a production by the directorial duo Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser that brought its visuals forward to the period of the collapse of the Soviet Empire. In Edinburgh, where it's the second offering from the visiting Lyon Opera, director Peter Stein and his design team attempt something less radical by remaining in period, though paying consistent homage to the 19th-century school of historical painting, of which Tchaikovsky's 1884 work is the nearest operatic equivalent.
However you play it, Mazeppa - with its concentrated narrative of personal and political betrayal, torture, execution and madness - remains red-blooded and occasionally gruesome drama, and its score is certainly among Tchaikovsky's darkest. It came over here with extraordinary punch, the Russian conductor Kirill Petrenko and his largely Russian cast conveying its emotional urgency with unflinching power.
Wojtek Drabowicz offered a complete portrayal of the elderly anti-hero of the piece, whose abduction of his former friend Kochubey's young daughter Maria sparks the mayhem that eventually destroys all the other main characters and leaves Mazeppa's homeland devastated. As Kochubey, Anatoli Kotscherga rose to noble heights in the harrowing torture scene, while Anna Samuil charted the steady disintegration of the unstable Maria. Marianna Tarasova gave a full-on account of Kochubey's proud wife Lyubov and Mikhail Agafonov a sympathetic one of Maria's cast-off lover, Andrey.
Each scene had the visual richness of a detailed oil-painting. The production's stage realism took in Anna Maria Heinreich's ornate Cossack costumes, and even a couple of horses - and you don't see many of those on the operatic stage these days. If the traditionalism was not quite what one expects from a giant of the contemporary theatre such as Stein, it was equally meticulous in its presentation of individual psychology. It's a mark of the opera's greatness that it can receive such different interpretations as those from Lyon and Cardiff, and still register with such tremendous force.
Edinburgh didn't have a monopoly on big opera this week. No less challenging - especially for a company on a limited budget - was Massenet's four-act epic Hérodiade, which Dorset Opera boldly ventured upon as their 2006 production. A neglected work these days, this late example of French grand opera contains several insinuating arias of the type in which Massenet excelled, and some mighty ensembles that the company's chorus hurled themselves at with distinction.
Designed by Cordelia Chisholm, William Relton's production came up with some effective classical interiors and costumes that updated the action to post-Second World War Jerusalem. The title role of Salomé's mother found a notable exponent in Rosalind Plowright, who gave the uptight queen a nervy grandeur and a flaring top register. Christine Arand both smiled and sang sweetly as her daughter - a much milder and more innocent creation than Strauss's necrophiliac princess -- while Ian Storey provided some weighty fervour as John the Baptist and Franco Pomponi plenty of playboy attitude as a decadent Herod. Peter Crockford's conducting showed an appreciation of the sensuousness of Massenet's melodic lines and an ability to build tension in his confrontational finales. All in all the company pulled off a considerable success.
Shostakovich, meanwhile, continued to occupy prime position at the Proms, with Valery Gergiev and his St Petersburg forces presenting two major works in the shape of his Thirteenth Symphony, "Babi Yar", in Prom 48, and the original version of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in Prom 49. The work in which the composer came closest to an outright attack on the Soviet regime, the 1962 symphony begins with a movement setting Yevtushenko's poem memorialising some 30,000 Jews murdered near Kiev in 1941, and referring directly to Russia's own history of anti-Semitism. Here and in the remaining movements the bass Mikhail Petrenko gave a deliberate if contained reading of some impassioned material, with Gergiev's conducting supplying most - though not all - of the missing bite.
The following night's Lady Macbeth also managed only fitful potency in what ought to be an overwhelming experience. Despite some fine solo work - especially from Viktor Lutsiuk's callously sensual Sergey, and the involving if vocally uneven Katerina of Larisa Gogolevskaya - there was again the worrying impression that Gergiev's hyperactive scheduling is driving the Mariinsky company too hard to maintain consistent artistic excellence.
Anna Picard is awayReuse content