Neither great nor grand, but a charmer
Kicek&Brys | USA/UK | 05/11/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Here's a rarity. In the summer of 2003, Russia's Helicon Opera Company revived "Pierre le Grand", a little-known 1790 opéra comique by the Walloon composer André-Ernest Modest Grétry, to celebrate the tercentenary of the founding of Saint Petersburg by the eponymous hero. Cameras were there to capture the event and this is the result. The plot is loosely based on actual history: Peter the Great disguises himself as a commoner so he can work as a carpenter in the shipyard which is building his new Russian fleet. Here he falls in love with a Livonian peasant girl, Catherine, offers to marry her, then disappears. Catherine is heartbroken and threatens suicide, but Peter returns to reveal his true identity and fulfill his vow to her, and the opera ends in general rejoicing. First impressions of the performance are mixed. It takes place in a tiny theatre and the sets were clearly produced on a budget, just a painted backdrop of a shipyard with a gantry above it where the singers clamber occasionally, plus some largish move-around props. But I expect the original 18th century staging was something like this, making it easy enough to accept, and the costumes are somewhat finer. The spoken dialogue is given in French and Russian (with the odd English and German phrase too), a confusing but linguistically interesting mishmash. I'm glad they stuck close to the original libretto, even though it's no great masterpiece. But what really confuses matters, apart from the Babel of languages, is the hyperactive direction. The producer seems obsessed with having relentlessly busy "stage business" going on all the time, whether it makes sense or not. I didn't understand the point of most of it. Maybe there are some exclusively Russian jokes in there; the audience laughed occasionally, even if I never did. But I wish the director had trusted the material, however naive, to stand on its own merits. Fortunately, the principal singers Maxim Mironov (Peter the Great) and Elena Voznessenskaya (Catherine) are excellent, and the rest of the cast is good enough. Sergei Stadler conducts his small orchestra with gusto, at one point interrupting the performance to play a florid violin solo (very well too). But the main attraction must be the music. Admittedly, this is not on the level of a Mozartian singspiel, the nearest contemporary equivalent of opéra comique. As a composer, Grétry didn't aim for the commanding heights, but his simple melodies will win you over if you are at all susceptible to French musical charm (and Mozart himself was an admirer). The booklet is excellent, the subtitles minuscule. Given the crackpot direction though, this is a DVD to listen to, rather than watch, again."
A musical trifle
Richard | Minneapolis, Mongolia | 07/23/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This production was put on in honor of the 300th aniversary of St. Petersberg. It tells the story of Peter the Great posing as a carpenter shipbuilder and falling in love with a commoner familiar from Zar und Zimmerman and L'Etoile du Nord. Gretry's version is a wisp of a thing whose book was once much longer than the music. This performance preserves all the music but cuts the dialogue to a minimum. No real loss. The production itself is something of a mess. It reminds me of a high school attempt although the singing is certainly above that. The shallow stage is covered with ladders suggesting carpentry and with ships. The singing is in French and the dialogue (which includes a lot of stage directions) in Russian for the most part. At times it is repeated first in French and then in Russian. There is a lot of spurious stage business to complicate what is truly a simple plot. Most of it is incomprehensible. But who cares. The music is wonderful - filled with melody and spirit. And the singers are up to their tasks and enter into the fray with abandon. We'll certainly never get another chance to see or even hear this little work. Let's be thankful and enjoy."