From Lortzing’s Zar und Zimmermann to Meyerbeer’s L’Étoile du Nord, 19th-century audiences seemingly lapped up operas about the Russian Tsar Peter the Great. These often revolved around a curious myth where the ruler wanders abroad amongst the common folk disguised as a peasant, most often as a carpenter (hence Lorzing’s zimmermann). In the case of Donizetti’s Pietro il Grande, Kzar delle Russie o Il Falegname di Livonia (Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia or The Livonian Carpenter) things are a little different. In this case the carpenter is Peter’s brother-in-law, Carlo, separated from his family at birth and living in Livonia unaware that his long-lost sister is now the Tsarina. Peter is still in disguise, here as a passing Russian nobleman, roaming the land in search of his wife’s brother.

Donizetti

Pietro il Grande was Donizetti’s second full-length opera, composed when he was 22 years old, and given in December 1819 at the opening of the Carnival season at Venice’s Teatro San Samuele. An opera buffa with a decent though lengthy libretto, it was well-received enough to earn a handful of other stagings over the next few years. This outing, timed to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the work’s premiere by the Fondazione Teatro Donizetti di Bergamo, uses a new critical edition and musically is absolutely top notch. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the baffling and often inept production by Marco Paciotti and Lorenzo Pasquali of Ondadurto Teatro.

The music first. Although it clearly owes a massive debt to Rossini (and occasionally Mozart), Donizetti is on good form, full of invention and wit. The period forces of Orchestra Gli Originali under Rinaldo Alessandrini seize the opportunity with both hands delivering a sizzling account of the score. At nearly three hours the opera is way too long for such a slight plot, but the music is never less than attractive.

Vocal laurels go to Paola Gradina as Madama Fritz (an innkeeper soft on Carlo the carpenter) and Marco Filippo Romano as Ser Cuccupis (the puffed-up local magistrate). Gradina’s mezzo is mellow and flexible and she’s a fine actor, catching both the character’s feisty side and the pathos of a pining older woman (for Carlo loves another). Romano is a classic buffo baritone, powerful in projection with pinpoint diction. He’s also pretty amusing, albeit hampered by a lack of direction.

Roberto De Candia sings powerfully as Pietro Il Grande, nicely matched by the fruity mezzo of Loriana Castellano as the Tsarina Caterina. Francisco Brito has an attractive lyric tenor, but his Carlo Scavronski is dimly realised and suffers from a general lack of dramatic wattage. As his fiancé, Annetta Mazepa, who turns out – in a twist that merely holds up the drawn-out dénouement – to be the daughter of a rebel, Nina Solodovnikova’s soprano is neat but a little edgy.

So why does Paciotti and Pasquali’s concept fall flat? In stills – i.e. on the DVD cover – it looks great fun, if highly stylised. Set and costumes – the latter by K B Projects – are based around the kind of geometric Russian avant-garde art of the early 20th century typified in the futurist works of Kazimir Malevich. All very good, but what the story has to do with any of that is anyone’s guess and the actors are mostly overwhelmed by their unwieldy clothes and wigs. With the cast looking – and sometimes acting – like marionettes, there’s little chance for any exploration of character and beyond the visuals the directors have few ideas to offer. Since opera singers are not always best suited to the kind of physical comedy that might have pulled some kind of dramatic rabbit out of this hat, the result is a lacklustre, unfunny affair. The lack of live audience laughter speaks volumes.

A missed opportunity, then. If you want a listen, try the CD recording on the same label (Dynamic CDS473) but with a different cast.

Composer: Donizetti
Work: Pietro il Grande
Performers: Roberto De Candia bar, Paola Gradina ms, Francisco Brito t, Marco Filippo Romano bar, Orchestra Gli Originali/Rinaldo Alessandrini
Label: Dynamic 37847 (2DVD) 57847 (Blu-ray)

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