So, for no other reason than that, the recent recording of a live performance
at Moscow’s Helikon Opera of that composer’s Pierre le Grand is reason to celebrate.
Nonetheless, despite a clever production and some respectable singing, this DVD will not
entirely satisfy fans of eighteenth-century French comic opera and will serve at best as a curiosity
of limited attraction for the general opera lover.
Pierre le Grand is a rather fanciful retelling of Peter the Great’s courtship of his second
wife, Catherine. The libretto, by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly, is loosely based on an account written by
Voltaire and depicts the Russian emperor as an earnest young man who, disguised as a shipyard
carpenter, is living in the seaside community to which the young widow Catherine has retired.
Complementing Catherine and Peter is another pair of lovers: Caroline, the daughter of Peter’s
employer, and Alexis, a young orphan. The basic action of the three acts (condensed to two in
this performance) is quite simple: Catherine and Peter reveal their love for one another in the first
act; Peter is called away on an urgent matter of state in the second, leaving Catherine with the
mistaken belief that he has deserted her; and in the final act Peter’s true identity is revealed, and
the lovers are reunited. Although the story may seem to revolve around affairs of the heart, the
fact that Peter is Tsar makes this a political opera. The work was premiered in Paris on 13
January 1790, during the early, idealistic days of the French Revolution when a constitutional
monarchy seemed both desirable and likely. Within that context, Peter’s down-to-earth behavior
and interest in the lives of his subjects assumed a revolutionary hue made explicit in the final
vaudeville, which becomes a prayer for King Louis XVI.
The production on this 2002 Art Haus DVD makes no attempt at period musical
performance, but as conductor Sergey Stadler states clearly in an brief interview included in the
“extras” included on the disc, that was not the intention. Although purists may long for the
lighter sound of historical instruments and vocal performances that are more soft-edged, the
Helikon Opera’s performers do acquit themselves satisfactorily. The shortcomings of the
production are not the fault of the musicians, but stem from a lack of physical space. The
Helikon Opera uses the courtyard of a lovely eighteenth-century residence as their performance
venue, but as a result the stage area is severely limited, having a depth of only four meters.
Despite an ingenious set design in which wooden scaffolding and canvas serve as a ship, a
shipyard, or the interior of house, the action always seems constrained and is visually rather
static. This is compensated for, in part, by the adoption of a quick dramatic pace that is achieved
through cuts, not to the music, but to the spoken dialogue that separates the musical numbers.
A curious feature of the dialogue in this performance is its blend of Russian and French.
Although the principals typically converse in the original French, minor characters frequently
speak Russian with a few French phrases thrown in for good measure. Moreover, after an
extended French dialogue between principals, another performer will inform the audience of
what has just been said in a Russian aside. Similarly, when the stage set is being reorganized to
depict a new scene, a character may explain what the new configuration represents. Such self-conscious, meta-theatrical devices abound, but they work well given the intimacy of the theater and the gently ironic tone that characterizes the performance. In short, Helikon Opera’s Pierre le
Grand is not likely to foster a revival of Grétry, but it may give aficionados of eighteenth-century
opera-comique an inkling of what that underservedly ignored genre is like.
Michael E. McClellan
image_description=André-Ernest-Modeste GrÈtry: Pierre le Grand
product_title=André-Ernest-Modeste GrÈtry: Pierre le Grand
product_by=Nikolai Dorozhkin, Anna Grechishkina, Mikhail Davydov, Chorus and Orchestra of the Helikon Opera, Sergey Stadler (cond.). Stage Production: Dimitry Bertmann. Sets and Costumes: Igor Nezhuy and Tatiana Tulubieva.
product_id=ArtHaus 101 097 [DVD]