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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Pietro il Grande Melodramma burlesco in two acts (1819)
Libretto by Gherardo Bevilacqua Aldobrandini
Pietro il Grande - Roberto de Candia (baritone)
Caterina - Loriana Castellano (mezzo-soprano)
Madama Fritz - Paola Gardina (mezzo-soprano)
Annetta Mazepa - Nina Solodovnikova (soprano)
Carlo Scavronski - Francisco Brito (tenor)
Sir Cuccupis - Marco Filipppo Romano (baritone)
Firman-Trombest - Tommaso Barea (baritone)
Hondedisky - Marcello Nardis (tenor)
Notaio - Stefano Gentili (bass)
Donizetti Opera Choir
Orchestra Gli Originali/Rinaldo Alessandrini
Marco Paciotti and Lorenzo Pasquali (stage direction, machine and set design), K.B. Project (costume design), Marco Alba (lighting design), Matteo Ricchetti (video direction)
rec. live 12, 15, 23 November 2019 at Festival Donizetti Opera 2019, Teatro Sociale, Bergamo, Italy
Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Sound format: PCM 2.0 / Dolby Digital 5.1
DYNAMIC DVD 37847 [2 DVDs 166 mins]

Pietro il grande, Kzar delle Russie (Peter the Great, Tsar of the Russias) with music by Donizetti is an opera buffa in two acts. The libretto by Marquis Gherardo Bevilacqua Aldobrandini was partially based on Felice Romani's libretto for Giovanni Pacini's opera Il falegname di Livonia (The Carpenter of Livonia), presented in Milan on 12 April 1819. The other source was Alexandre Duval's comedy Le menuisier de Livonie, ou Les illustres voyageurs (The Carpenter of Livonia or the The Illustrious Travelers) from 1805.

Donizetti's opera was premiered on 26 December 1819 at the San Samuele Theatre as part of the opening of the 1819-20 Carnival season in Venice. The composer was then only 22 years old. The opera was successful at the time and it was then staged at least seven times. After that the work was neglected and nearly forgotten although Donizetti used parts of it twice, as also stated in the booklet notes. The first time, possibly ca. 1826, for a violin and piano musical medley, dedicated to his future wife. The second in 1832. Here he used the orchestral motif of the chorus that opens an aria of the magistrate for the first finale of L’elisir d’amore. More than one hundred years passed with no performance or mention of the work at all until 2003 when it was staged at the St. Petersburg Opera House to celebrate the 300-hundred-year anniversary of the city’s foundation. Approximately one year later, in 2004, it received performances at the Festival della Valle d’Itria in Martina Franca, southern Italy.

The story relates to a historical fact in the life of Tsar Peter, the Great. He travelled to Livonia with his wife, Tsarina Catherine, searching for a carpenter who might be her relative. The historical kingdom of Livonia is now split between Latvia and Estonia in the Baltic. Personally I don’t find the plot particularly interesting or funny. There is confusion, errors, people in disguise and a central character who has no idea of his true identity. The historical background is thin. The fact that Peter, the Great did travel to Livonia didn’t seem relevant. The story could have been set up anywhere with any authority figure. Summarising, the plot is as follows: Carlo, a carpenter, is in love with Annetta, an innocent girl and daughter of a traitor. He claims to be of noble origin and is jealous of the usurer, Firman, who is interested in Annetta too. Carlo shows that he has a bit of a temper and it is the innkeeper Madama Fritz who manages to bring peace. In the meantime, the Tsar Peter and his wife the Tsarina Catherine, arrive, both travelling incognito as Menzicoff and his wife. They are looking for the tsarina’s lost brother and ask Madama Fritz about this carpenter, Carlo, whose origins are unknown. When Carlo enters, he is insolent and reacts aggressively to Menzicoff/Peter’s enquiries. An argument ensues, with Menzicoff/Peter threatening Carlo with consequences. The town magistrate, Sir Cuccupis, a slightly unpleasant character, arrives and at first seems to be on Carlo’s side but eventually surrenders to Menzicoff/Peter’s authority and arrests Carlo. Madama Fritz produces some documents that prove Carlo’s noble origin and so the young man is freed without the magistrate’s knowledge. Fearing for Carlo’s fate, Annetta opens her heart to Catherine who understands that Carlo could be her lost brother. Peter however flies into a rage when he learns that Annetta, betrothed to his potential brother-in-law, is the daughter of the rebel Mazeppa. In the meantime, Madama Fritz visits the magistrate to plead Carlo’s cause, but, unknown to her and the magistrate, the young man has already been released. Sir Cuccupis is humiliated, as he was by-passed and ignored. Set free and supplied with elegant clothes Carlo feels uncomfortable and quarrels again with Firman but then he learns he is Catherine’s brother. Madama Fritz and Annetta are happy but Madama Fritz fears for the girl and that Carlo’s new identity might take him away from her. Annetta is confident. Carlo introduces Annetta to Catherine as his fiancée, announcing he will take her with him but the Tsar may never meet her because she is the rebel Mazepa’s daugther. At this point Carlo doesn’t yet know Menzicoff’s true identity. At first Menzicoff/Peter reacts badly but then forgives Annetta because the traitor died long ago. Before leaving, Menzicoff’s true identity is revealed, the unpleasant magistrate, Sir Cuccupis, is dismissed to everyone’s delight. Peter, Catherine, Carlo and Annetta leave happily for St Petersburg.

Donizetti’s opera of Pietro, il Grande is understandably very much in the style of Rossini – at this time a much more famous, established composer than Donizetti who was still at the beginning of his career. It is not only the comedy as such, it is also the music, which sounds Rossinian most of the time though there are clearly other influences like Mozart and Donizetti’s attempts at his own musical identity. To me, if I had listened to it without knowing what the piece was, I would probably have identified it as a lost opera by Rossini. This takes nothing away from the music. The score isn’t remarkable or memorable but it is good, with many attractive arias – some with great difficulty – pretty ensembles and excellent chorus moments.

The production in the present DVD was recorded live at the 2019 Donizetti Opera Festival in Bergamo (the composer’s hometown). It was a new staging directed and with set designs by Marco Paciotti and Lorenzo Pasquali, supported by the Fondazione Teatro Donizetti di Bergamo. It is an extraordinarily colourful production – one of its best features and simultaneously, to me, also its downfall. To start with, the costumes and head gear are garish, multi-coloured and extremely exaggerated – a sort of 18th century parody that detracts from the singing. The characters faces are also painted in a way that appears as if a toddler decided to do the make-up. Vivid, almost psychedelic, kaleidoscopic images, continuously turning, are often projected behind the characters and while such pictures are essentially beautiful I found them distracting. To me it was all too much. It may work better live but on a TV screen it becomes overcrowded. I found myself wishing they would have opted for a more minimalistic approach.

The cast is good and gave fine performances. The most remarkable was to me mezzo Paola Gardina who sings Madama Fritz. She has a solid coloratura, singing with great dexterity and projecting very well. Her high notes are strong, her tone pleasing and flexible. She is also a good actress and makes a believable, gutsy Madama Fritz. Baritone Roberto de Candia, as Pietro, il Grande, is impressive and the best of the rest. Argentinian tenor Francisco Brito is undoubtedly talented. His singing is at times exciting. His voice can be thrilling, especially in some of his notable high notes. As an actor I found him less believable, a little lacking in dramatic expression and, occasionally, slightly frantic as if not certain what was required of him. The other cast members such as Marco Filippo Romano, as the magistrate, and Tommaso Barea as Firman do their job well. Loriana Castellano, as Tsarina Catherine, is exceptionally good, and Nina Solodovnikova as Annetta is enjoyable. Both play their roles believably. Solodovnikova possibly needs to develop further and polish her voice. There were moments where she sounded insecure and some of her high notes were a little rough. In all, a reliable cast and a favourable, positive performance.

The Orchestra Gli Originali and the Coro Donizetti Opera are excellent and stand out, as the best things in this production of the opera. The musical and singing performances are as a whole rather satisfying and accomplished, thanks mostly to outstanding Maestro Rinaldo Alessandrini. He makes an unmemorable score sound exceptionally attractive and extracts superb renditions from his musicians, sympathetically supporting the singers.

The video is well directed by Matteo Ricchetti and the booklet is well presented, containing a rather interesting history of the opera and a synopsis in Italian and English, plus some attractive photos of the production. The DVD’s subtitles are in Italian, English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

As part of the Donizetti Opera Festival in Bergamo, it made a lot of sense to present a new production of this nearly forgotten opera written during the composer’s youthful years. It is a rarity and as such, stimulating, appealing and interesting, however it remains a curiosity and I doubt that suddenly we would see it being performed in many opera houses across Europe and the world. Bearing in mind the difficulties culture in general and live performance in particular are suffering at the moment due to the virus, it is unlikely that, when things return to some sort of normality, opera houses will want to stage obscure neglected works, turning instead I think to highly popular operas that are known to fill up auditoriums.

To summarise, this DVD with the 2019 Donizetti Opera Festival production of Pietro, il Grande is pleasing enough and worth buying if one is a die-hard Donizetti fan or a scholar of the composer.

Margarida Mota-Bull
(Margarida writes more than just reviews, check it online at http://www.flowingprose.com/)



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