“Be mindful of me, for I am Pia: Siena gave me birth; Maremma was my undoing”
From these cryptic words from Dante, local legend, and a couple of contemporary plays, Donizetti’s librettist Cammarano furnished the composer with Pia de’Tolomei, first performed in Venice in February 1837. Due to La Fenice having burnt down in December of the previous year, it premiered at Teatro Apollo but with little success. Donizetti hastily provided an amended first act finale and tinkered with the opera several times after the premiere so that any performance nowadays has a choice of three first act finales and two second act finales, one of which is a happy ending imposed by the Neapolitan censor who had previously taken umbrage with Poliuto.
What seems to have most surprised the Venetians was a lack of a concertato movement before a final furious stretta in Act 1. Donizetti was to later provide an excellent new concertato for the Naples performances and this has been inserted into modern day performances, along with the new finale written for performances in Senigallia. This composite version is the one that Opera Rara performed at Royal Festival Hall in 2004, in which all is sorted and Pia survives, with wonderful disregard for Dante and indeed history. The inserted revisions were also adopted in La Fenice’s 2005 performances with Patrizia Ciofi.
English Touring Opera have opted to present the original Venice version with its breakneck speed Act 1 finale and much credit as ever must go to the company for their interest in non-repertoire Donizetti, following on from The Wild Man of the West Indies last year and two runs of The Siege of Calais. Originally planned as a semi-staged concert performance, ETO have bravely stepped up to the challenge and performed a fully staged production; their commitment to doing so is another reason to value this company. Making a virtue of necessity, (and sensible for a company touring the country), director James Conway and designer Loren Elstein used the reverse of the Don Giovanni set that forms the third part of ETO’s spring season. This was one set for all, functioning both as the hall of a castle and a battle camp for the Guelphs.
Pia may not be the greatest of Donizetti’s works, it is decidedly inferior to its older sister, Lucia di Lammermoor, but is interesting enough to hear more often. The plot is fairly simple dramatically, with Ghino trying it on with his cousin’s missus, then suggesting to his cousin that she’s doing the dirty with another man .That man is actually her brother (don’t worry, this isn’t ‘Tis Pity she’s a Whore), who is on the opposite side of the conflict between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Pia is taken off to the malarial marshes of the Maremma, where she is poisoned on her husband’s orders, who discovers her innocence too late. Pia is rather dull and passive as a character but Ghino is an interesting character, rather like Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi; Ghino’s a cad but develops into a well-rounded character, repenting of his sins before dying.
ETO’s orchestra under conductor John Andrews was well-paced and played with gusto. The horns made a delicious sound in “Parea celeste spirito” which was reminiscent of “O mon Fernand” from La Favorite, which incidentally will be performed in East London later this month by UCL Opera. They made the most of the orchestral passages, from the opening prelude, that rather sounded like an opener to a Hollywood awards ceremony, through the darkly grim introduction to Rodrigo’s aria and the superbly dramatic storm in Act 2.
As with many operas of the period, many of the choruses are for men only and as a touring company, ETO’s chorus numbers are limited. Rather than give an anaemic sound, the male choruses were bulked up by having the women doubling the lines at the relevant octave. The chorus sounded clear and handled a very quick costume change in Act 2 from bloodied flagellants, led by the ever-reliable Piotr Lempa as Piero, to roaring soldiers by the simple expedient of dropping their whips and removing their hoods. The whole ensemble gave a thrilling rendition of the hell for leather Act 1 finale which is better than the rejection it suffered at the hands of the Venetians would suggest.
Costumes I can only really describe as being “distressed period”; dark and sombre toned clothing that was only lightened by the greens worn by Pia and Nello. It created an atmospherically oppressive feel to the production. Lighting by Guy Hoare veered towards the overly dingy but, at times, insightful little vignettes were created that looked as if designed for close-up filming, with the audience’s attention drawn into intimate moments away from the surroundings, particularly during the sad duet “Fra queste braccia” for the siblings, one of the highlights of the score.
Pia’s brother Rodrigo is a superfluous character, only brought in to satisfy the whims of the management at La Fenice who wanted to showcase a young contralto, Rosina Mazzarelli. Originally allocated two arias, the second was cut for this performance, but that’s no major loss. The aria that did remain, “Mille volte sul campo d’onor”, was sung affectingly by Catherine Carby and the cabaletta, “L’astro che regge i miei destini” was all very enjoyable barnstorming claptrap. If Carby looked tired, it was apt for a character that has been rotting in a dank dungeon.
The three leads were well-matched and gave intelligent performances. As the nefarious Ghino, Luciano Botelho, didn’t force his voice in his cavatina “Non può dirti la parola” and though his character is bitter about Pia’s rebuffing him, the characterisation suggested that he genuinely believes that she was arranging an assignation with an unknown fellow. His upper register had a Kunde-esque edge to it, though the acuto at the end of the cabaletta was hard to hear over the orchestra. His death in between the aria and cabaletta for Nello in Act 2 was a trifle melodramatic but this was overshadowed by a solid portrayal of a nervy, insecure man who repents his scheming, alas too late to effect a happy denouement.
Grant Doyle (Nello) sang securely and with a warm resonance, pairing well with Botelho in their duet, their voices blending effectively in “Del ciel che non punisce”. He sang “Lei perduta in core ascondo” with a bleakness that reflected his situation, his mind poisoned with doubts about Pia’s fidelity.
Pia was sung by Elena Xanthoudakis, no stranger to the London stage, having previously performed at ROH in La sonnambula. Her opening aria “O tu che desti il fulmine” displayed a beautifully spun vocal line and the following cabaletta was secure with plenty of heft available for the asking. Her duet with Carby was gorgeous, their lilting music sung with fine legato phrasing which brought some warmth to the characters and provided an all too brief glimpse of light to the story. She adopted a striking posture in her duet with Ghino, the flowing line apparently convincing enough to turn Ghino from the Dark Side, despite its prissy Victorian moralistic tone. As she awoke from her tortured sleep in her cell in the Act 2 finale, Xanthoudakis gave an intense portrayal, which stood out from the other fine performances of the evening, growing increasingly febrile as she tried to reconcile her husband with her brother whilst she succumbed to poison.
Pia is no masterpiece but ETO have done well to have faith in Lucia’s little sister and there are surely other Donizetti works that could also be given a little bit of a wake up. ETO will also be performing Pia de’Tolomei at Snape Maltings, the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham, Buxton Opera House, Cambridge Arts Theatre, Exeter Northcott Theatre and York Theatre Royal – it comes highly recommended.
(Photos : ETO website)