The opera was presented in the Theater San Samuele in Venice during the carnival of 1819.
Gaetano Donizetti is known as the author of Lucia di Lammermoor, The Elixir of Love, and Don Pasquale. Only few people know that among the first works written by the 22-year-old Italian composer was an opera about Peter the Great, based on a play by Alexandre Duval that was popular at the time. The opera Il falegname di Livonia, o Pietro il grande, czar delle Russie (The Livonian Carpenter, or Peter the Great, Tsar of the Russians) was presented in the Theater San Samuele in Venice during the carnival of 1819.
It was director Yuri Alexandrov who first introduced Donizetti’s masterpiece in Russia and named the performance as Peter the Great, or The Incredible Adventures of the Russian Tsar. The preparation of the performance took a few years, but after this hard work he managed to put together fragments of the score of Peter the Great scattered throughout Italy. Thus, this creation of the great composer, that was long thought lost, was returned to the world. This sensational performance marked a new life of the St. Petersburg Opera. After years of wandering, the opera company finally gained its home in the cozy mansion of Baron von Derviz on Galernaya Street.
The romantic and political story of the opera, where the Russian royal couple is involved, does not seek to be historically true, but it gives rise to the ironical and game-like action, full of unpredictable plot twists. Gracefully melodic music of Donizetti and the director’s inventive easily reconcile you with the fact that drama episodes have nothing to do with the real Russian history.
The opera takes place in a Livonian town on the Baltic coast, recently recaptured by Peter the Great from Sweden.
The first act of the opera begins with a duet between the carpenter Karl and his fiancee Anette, characters seemingly far removed from Russian history. And then it turns out that one of them is preoccupied with the secret of his origin, and the other with the fact who is her father ... However, more on that later.
As soon as the sounds of a love duet are silenced, a character appears on the stage, not foreseen by maestro Donizetti. This is our contemporary, a kind of Presenter, the Face of the Theatre, explaining to the public, not firmly in the Italian language, the nuances of the plot and the meaning of the historical discoveries found in it. As for the audience, who firmly knows the Italian language, the Russian speech of the Presenter will in no way prevent it from enjoying the beauty of the music of the great Italian maestro.
Omitting the not-so-important events of the opera, connected with the interest-holder Firmann and Annette’s necklace given to him as a pledge, let us pass on to Madame Fritz, the innkeeper. She performs cavatina, in which the Russian audience will not understand a word. But the Italian ... will not understand many fascinating details of Karl’s just fought with the Russian captain Hondediski, who had recently arrived from St. Petersburg, who decided to “attack” Anette. He will not understand, since all the recitatives of the opera are performed in Russian.
There is extraordinary excitement in Madame Fritz’s hotel – noble guests are arriving from St. Petersburg. No one suspects that this is Peter the Great himself and his wife Ekaterina. Peter embarked on this incognito journey in the hope of finding Ekaterina’s missing brother, Karl Skavronsky. When Peter asked about a local carpenter, Madame Fritz points to Karl. Peter asks the carpenter about his origins, but Karl refuses to answer. Then the tsar orders Hondediski to arrest Charles in order to interrogate him in St. Petersburg. Karl manages to give Madame Fritz an envelope with documents proving his noble origin, and asks Madame, who is not indifferent to him, to patronize Anette in his absence.
A new character intervenes in the events – the Magister, or the judge. Angered by the arrest of Karl without his knowledge, the Magister promises Madame Fritz and Anette to immediately punish the unlawful willfulness of the St. Petersburg guest. The Magistrate starts interrogating ... Peter and threatens the emperor with arrest. To this, Peter declares to the Judge that he is none other than ... Prince Menshikov – the first boyar of the tsar. The frightened judge, with fear beginning to understand something in Russian, agrees to arrange a trial ... He promises to strictly interrogate Karl and find out the secret of his origin.
The trial begins. Madame Fritz appears and announces the contents of the envelope she received from Karl. A letter from the Livonian bishop, with whom Karl served, confirms that Karl Skavronsky, who was born into a noble family, has lost his parents, and, possibly, his older sister is in Russia.
Realizing that the Livonian carpenter is her missing brother, empress faints. Peter orders to interrupt the trial...
The Magistrate is thinking. To justify Karl, who arouses such an incomprehensible interest of the “first boyar of the tsar” or to condemn him? Madame Fritz appears, pleading with the Judge to release Karl. Her flirtatious hints of her former affinity with the Magister have no effect. However, the persistent Madame gets down to business according to all the rules of the art of seduction and achieves ... What exactly Madame Fritz is trying to achieve will be equally clear to both the Russian and the Italian public. Moreover, both the one and the other will note that the process of seduction today proceeds in about the same way as it did three hundred years ago.
At the culmination point of the seduction process, a dispatch is delivered to the Judge, which informs the under-seduced Judge that the arrested Karl has already been released by order of Menshikov.
Anticipating a banal denouement, the public sees the liberated Karl in rich clothes. Karl is unable to understand the reason for such an unexpected change. Now even the usurer Firmann is ready to immediately return Annette’s necklace, confident that the rich Karl will pay it a hundredfold. Peter and Ekaterina appear. The first historical event, as evidenced by Donizetti’s opera, is taking place – Peter's wife finds her lost brother. Everyone is happy. Madame Fritz, however, is unhappy. Nevertheless, she informs Annette that she is inferior to Karl and wishes them happiness in Petersburg ... In response, Annette confesses to Madame Fritz that her departure with Karl to Petersburg is impossible.
Peter, Katerina and Karl appear. Karl introduces his bride to the imperial couple, and Peter promises to be at their wedding in St. Petersburg. However, Annette, turning to Peter, sadly asserts: the tsar will never agree to her wedding with Charles. In response to the amazed questions of the imperial couple, Karl confesses to the tsar that the father of his bride is none other than ... Hetman Mazepa.
“Vile traitor! Traitor!” - Peter in a rage (Mazepa betrayed Peter in the battle of Poltava) The Tsar demands that the traitor immediately appear before his eyes. “He died,” Anette replies, “passed away a year ago.”
After a long silence, the tsar approaches Anette and says: “From now on, I will be your father.”
The aria of the pacified Katerina demands the appearance of the Presenter. He appears, and the shocked public becomes clear to the unrestrained humane meaning of the next historical discovery. The families of the enemies of Peter and Mazepa became related. The descendants of mortal enemies will become brothers and sisters. Without Donizetti’s opera, it would have been impossible to believe.
Happy ending. Karl and Madame Fritz say goodbye to each other. Crazy from all the vicissitudes, the Magister learns that the one he took for Menshikov is Peter himself, and immediately organizes the magnificent farewell of the royal cavalcade to Petersburg. However, another shock awaits the Judge. After all, the Russian captain Hondediski is not at all Hondediski, he is Prince Alexander Danilich Menshikov in person. It is not known whether the tortured brain of the Magister would have withstood all this if Peter the Great had not announced his will, which would decide his fate. Every month the treasury will pay the Magistrate a thousand rubles, provided that he no longer serves. Nowhere and never! The opera ends with a hymn in honor of St. Petersburg and its 300-year history.
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