Gaetano Donizetti - Pietro il Grande
Fondazione Teatro Donizetti, Bergamo, 2019
Rinaldo Alessandrini, Marco Paciotti, Lorenzo Pasquali, Roberto de Candia, Loriana Castellano, Paola Gardina, Nina Solodovnikova, Francisco Brito, Marco Filippo Romano, Tommaso Barea, Marcello Nardis, Stefano Gentili
Dynamic - Blu-ray
There are definitely surprises and even some great underrated and largely unknown works by Donizetti being rediscovered and revived - the best being mainly perhaps his later French operas - but it's hard to imagine that anyone would consider the young composer's second opera Pietro il Grande (Peter the Great) to be a great opera. And yet even lesser Donizetti has much to recommend and enjoy, whether you are interested in exploring the influences on the composer's early work, whether you are interested in seeing how the work can be adapted and brought to modern audience, or whether you just want to be entertained by a pleasant light musical drama. There's definitely a bit of something for everyone in Pietro il Grande.
Although it might sound like a historical epic, Donizetti's opera is no Boris Godunov, more of a light comedy, an opera buffa. In Pietro il Grande, Peter the Great, the Czar of Russia comes to Livonia, thinly disguised as a government official called Menzikoff, arriving at the inn of Madam Fritz. He's looking for someone called Carlo who he believes might be Scavronsky, the lost brother of the Czarina. It's not all good news for Carlo, a humble carpenter, as he is in love with Annetta, who also has a mysterious secret background. Her father is Mazepa, the Ekman of the Cossacks, a traitor to his country and enemy of the Czar. How can this intolerable situation be resolved?
Well, that's the stuff and magic of opera, and somehow Donizetti and his librettist the Marquis Gherardo Bevilacqua Aldobrindini, manage to stretch out this thin plot more with colourful characters and musical situations than with any real dramatic action. They are the kind of character types you expect to find in a Donizetti or Rossini comedy, and often it's the secondary characters who deliver the most entertainment by stirring things up. In this case that's Madam Fritz and the pompous local magistrate Cuccupis, and this production is fortunate to have two excellent singers and performers in those roles; Paola Gardina and Marco Filippo Romano.
As far as musical setting goes, it's fairly conventional early Donizetti, but delivered of course with a variety of situations and melodic flair. There are the inevitable romantic situations and complications involving a great ruler and a lot of recitative which harks back to not so distant opera seria times, but also drinking songs, hunting songs and plenty of choral interludes pointing to what lies ahead. With secret identities and comic revelations Pietro il Grande is all very opéra-comique, and could easily pass for one of Offenbach's playful historical satires. Pompous characters are put in their place and ordinary people are shown to have far more respectable characteristics and more noble ideas of justice.
Like those works, it's not to be taken seriously but it is essential to enter into the spirit of the work, particularly on the part of the singers. Paola Gardina's Madam Fritz and Marco Filippo Romano's Cuccupis are, as I've mentioned, very much the comic driving force behind the work, particularly when playing off one another, with the magistrate even getting some of those Rossini rapid-fire tongue-twisters. The other roles are rather less interesting - even Roberto de Candia's Pietro - but Donizetti nonetheless provides plenty of opportunities to play up the comedy if a director is willing to work with it.
You at least get plenty of colour and spectacle to match the tone in the 2019 Festival Donizetti Opera production at the Teatro Sociale in Bergamo. No stuffy historical period costumes here, the set looks like it was designed by Paul Klee with Wassily Kandinsky helping out with the costume designs. That's a lot of colour! As if that's not enough there are occasional projections of geometric patterns to add to the backgrounds. It's just a little bit over the top, but it does suit the colourful situations of the cartoonish comedy-drama and add a little bit of spectacle to those scenes that tend to drag out what is after all a fairly thin plot.
With Ondadurto Teatro's Marco Paciotti and Lorenzo Pasquali directing, dull moments however are few and far between. At 2 hours and 45 minutes there's plenty of entertainment and some pleasant music to enjoy, with Rinaldo Alessandrini's conducting thoroughly in the spirit of Donizetti. Just as you think the orchestra sound like they might be flagging or losing interest in the routine parts of the score, there's a chorus or an increase in tempo or a Rossini-run to rev things up again.
The 2019 Donizetti Festival production is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Dynamic, who have really upped their game in terms of releasing interesting opera rarities and in the quality of their HD releases. The Blu-ray image here is fantastic, the screen exploding with colour. The soundtracks are in the usual Hi-Res PCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 surround, both excellent quality with good clarity. There might not be a lot of nuance and detail in the actual score, but this gets the performance across well. The extras are all in the booklet and are useful and informative, looking at the history of the work and providing a tracklist and synopsis. The BD is all-region, with subtitles in Italian, English, French, German, Korean and Japanese.
Links: Donizetti Opera Festival