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André Modeste GRÉTRY (1741-1813)
Pierre le Grand (1790).
Maxim Mironov (tenor) Peter the Great; Elena Voznessenskaya (soprano) Catherine; Nikolai Galin (bass) Lefort; Mikhail Davidov (baritone) Georges; Elena Guschina (mezzo) Genevieva; Ekaterina Oblezova (soprano) Caroline; Vladimir Bolotin (tenor) Alexis; Victor Verzhbitsky, Menshikoff; Sergey Kostyuk (baritone) Maturin;
Chorus and Orchestra of the Helikon Opera/Sergey Stadler. the Helikon Opera in 2002.
PCM Stereo. DVD 9. NTSC. Picture format 4:3.
ARTHAUS 101 097 [94’00]


Recorded on the occasion of the 300-year anniversary of the founding of St Petersburg, Grétry’s opera on Peter the Great is a vaudeville that offers plenty of scope for comedy – the great man disguises himself to live as a regular member of his populace. And really one should be grateful this is here at all. Grétry’s discography is hardly huge, after all.

I confess I had not noticed the little line on the back of the box that this is ‘Sung in French, Dialogues in Russian’ so it all came as a bit of a shock that this is a bilingual performance. Still, I had my subtitles. Except – well, a French line squeezes in, intact, and at one point a Japanese character nestles happily amongst some English.

If it sounds as if I’m coming down hard on the DVD production values, I believe I have full justification. There are no DVD ‘extras’ (ironically this is an instance where it would be a good place to have them!), although the (uncredited) booklet notes are for once quite full and interesting. The total playing time is a mere one-and-a-half hours, yet the DVD appears to retail at Arthaus’s full price.

The company appears to have toured with this production too, appearing at Salamanca in June 2003. Certainly the timing of all concerned is excellent, the ensemble pieces slick as can be. The orchestra is a good one (especially fine string definition), injecting plenty of energy into the overture; indeed, sometimes one is led to think the Helikon’s band represents the best aspect of this DVD. The video synch is not 100% here, although we see enough to know that Sergey Stadler is a time-beater and not much else.

The story concerns Peter the Great who had disguised of himself as a carpenter to work on the first ship of his empire. A common girl, elevated in position because of Peter’s presence, is another popular plot-twist that is present. Catherine, who represents the Enlightenment idea of elevating the poor, becomes the logical extension of Peter (Pierre).

Staging is such that one suspects their budget was stretched, Paintings of boats hang down to suggest the sea as the on-board chorus sings (not entirely agreeing when to with the orchestra, though). The chorus’s comical ‘decorating’ movements certainly help the amusement factor.

There are amusing producer-led moments throughout – Lefort conducts the orchestra (!) to start the duet between Pierre and himself, ‘Oui, tes services, à constance feront ma gloire’), for example.

Pierre is sung by a rather effeminate Maxim Mironov, not so hot on long notes and rather wobbly, but he has the screamingly high note that tops (literally!) his air, ‘Je vais munir’.

Elena Voznessenskaya is an expressive Catherine, her intervals cleanly negotiated and her cadenza in Arietta, ‘Oui, mes amis’ is very effective (the end of the aria has a whiff of the Queens of the Night about it). Her duet with Pierre in the Duo, ‘Je vais munir’ is a particular highlight; more, her sadness when she is abandoned on the day of her wedding is eminently believeable. The Caroline is Ekaterina Oblezova, who is remarkably elegant in her Mozartian Air, ‘J’étais au bord de la Fontaine’.

The character of Georges is amusing (Mikhail Davidov), his hair presumably purposefully done to make him look like Beethoven, although the chorus’s Monty Python-ish movements in his Ariette, ‘Morgué sans m’avanter’ could easily have been dispensed with.

The casually-attired conductor, Sergey Stadler, by the way, is the soloist in the violin solo, and very good he is too.

Is it worth the price? Probably not in the final analysis although it is worth a look if you can hire it.

Colin Clarke

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