Pia di Tolomei – not quite a masterpiece

11 Mar

After last year’s Il furioso nell’ Isola di San Domingo, English Touring Opera moved to another Donizetti rarity – Pia de’ Tolomei. It’s one of his late Italian operas, written for Venice to a libretto by Cammarano and based, rather loosely, on a passage in Dante. I went over to Hackney on 10th March to see the UK stage premiere.

It’s another Guelphs/Ghibellines sort of story. Pia’s family are Guelphs, but to try to achieve peace, she has been married to the Ghibelline, Nello. His brother, Ghino, is in love with her but takes advantage of an intercepted letter, which seems to show that she is seeing another man, to persuade Nello that she’s unfaithful. In fact, the letter is from her brother, Rodrigo, whom she is helping escape from her husband’s dungeon. Got it so far?

The first act sets up the position in a series of entrance arias and cabalettas leading to a finale where Rodrigo meets Pia, escapes through a secret passage and Nello is only just stopped from killing Pia and ending the opera an hour early.  I can understand why the Venetians were a bit disappointed with this: it doesn’t have quite the sense of scale or excitement that, say, that for Il furioso has, let alone, Act II of Lucia or Act III of Favorita.  Mind you, the duet for Pia and Rodrigo is gorgeous and the ensuing trio and stretta are perfectly good.

In the second act, the mistake is unravelled but not before Nello has been defeated in battle and had Pia poisoned – she dies urging peace.  There’s a rather good Verdian chorus opening the act for the Guelphs and then a splendid duet for Pia and Ghino where he repents.  He meets the defeated Nello with a group of hermits and confesses before he dies.  Nello dashes off to try to save Pia and arrives too late.  The final scene – a gorgeous aria for Pia turning into a duet for her and Nello – is the finest part of a good, solid, enjoyable evening.

The problem is that it doesn’t quite add up to a satisfying whole.  Donizetti originally wanted it to be a taut melodrama concentrating on the three leads.  When he arrived in Venice, however, he discovered that he had to expand the role of Rodrigo for a promising young mezzo (possibly the director’s mistress).  There are at least two excellent numbers for the role but nothing in the second act until the very end.  For Naples, he was required to have a happy ending and there were other bits and pieces of reworking.  This performance kept Rodrigo’s arias, added the chorus and kept the tragic ending. It’s still quite a short opera – less than two hours of music and at times it feels a bit perfunctory – and it’s hard to feel that it’s a forgotten masterpiece.

On the other hand, there is some super music: all of the arias of a high calibre and the duets in the second act for Pia and Ghino and Ghino and Nello are outstanding. As I’ve suggested, Donizetti saves his best for the last scene and the death of Pia and her reconciliation.  It’s touching, effective music and the characters are typically well drawn. It didn’t strike me as having anything of the originality of his later Paris operas but it’s still an effective and enjoyable evening, particularly for those of us who can’t really get enough Donizetti and wish people would explore things beyond Maria Stuarda.

James Conway’s production did the piece effectively enough. It was set on what looked like the set of one the other operas that they’re doing, turned round – all scaffold and rostra. Not exactly a delight for the eye, but it concentrated you on the characters and, since it didn’t look like anything in particular, worked fine for scenes set in the court, a dungeon and a swamp. Costumes were a bit of a mishmash but, again, did the trick. His direction was efficient, considerate of his actors and allowed you to follow the plot and the emotions. This isn’t meant to be patronising: clarity is an under-rated virtue in opera production and the obvious constraints of a low budget really didn’t spoil the enjoyment.  He played the opera for exactly what it was worth.

I thought there was some smashing singing. Elena Xanthoudakis was an outstanding Pia – she may not be Joan Sutherland, yet, but this was full bodied singing, accurate coloratura and she sang a really meltingly lovely last scene.  She can come back in Donizetti at any time.

Luciano Botelho as Ghino has a rather lighter tenor than you’d ideally like and the top notes were managed rather than easy – but they are quite high and there are a lot of them. He presented a credible figure. Grant Doyle was splendid as Nello – I think his voice suits Donizetti rather well and he conveyed the anger and mix of emotions really well. Catherine Carby was a very fine Rodrigo, making you wish that the role was longer. Piotr Lempa as a passing hermit, made a strong impression too.

John Andrews conducted – I thought he caught the style well and had the orchestra playing dramatically, alertly. The music came over well and the whole thing sounded like very high quality Donizetti indeed.

This, on paper, is just the sort of piece ETO shouldn’t be doing – a bel canto piece really needing singers and productions standards out of their range. In fact, they showed that it’s possible to make a convincing, enjoyable case for the opera without breaking their bank.  It’s well worth a visit.

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